Politics & Policy

Graham’s Cracking

Florida's senior senator is throwing his hat into the ring.

The 2004 Democratic presidential field may get its official seventh dwarf.

Following Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt, Dean, and Sharpton, Senator Bob Graham of Florida plans to file papers launching a presidential campaign in the next two or three weeks the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Graham will begin raising money while he recuperates from heart surgery in the coming weeks.

Graham has planned to officially join the race for president this month but learned he needed surgery to replace a deteriorating aortic valve. Graham underwent a successful surgery Jan. 31 and is currently recovering at his daughter’s home in Virginia. A Graham associate said the senator would file papers with the Federal Election Commission within a month to allow him to begin fundraising, and a formal announcement could come by mid-April.

“He has been talking about running before, during, and after surgery, apparently,” says Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran pollster and political handicapper. He said the three-term senator and former governor has certain strengths that may stand out from the rest of the field.

“Coming from Florida automatically makes him of interest,” Rothenberg said. “His background in intelligence gives him another angle to demonstrate expertise in a high-profile area.” Graham chaired the Senate intelligence panel during the Democrats’ reign in control of the chamber.

Larry J. Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, thinks Graham could be a formidable contender.

“He can raise a lot of money, and he can call upon his southern roots to argue that the Democrats need that kind of geographical balance on the ticket,” Sabato said. “He’s obviously not a frontrunner, but he has to be taken seriously — he’s not facing a field of candidates that is full of giants. Certainly, he doesn’t have much charisma, but he could be the anti-charisma candidate.”

As the intelligence panel’s chairman, Graham has carved out a unique niche among Senate Democrats as a hawk, but one focused on a different threat than most Republicans or Lieberman, the party’s most vocal supporter of attacking Iraq. Unlike the other members of his party who voted against last October’s resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, Graham argued that it didn’t go far enough. He urged President Bush to use force against all international terrorist groups, but he has consistently urged immediate action against Hezbollah.

During the October debate, Graham said that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has killed Americans in the Middle East for 20 years and has cells in the United States ready to strike.

After President Bush’s State of the Union speech, Graham said, “The most competent terrorist group was not mentioned in the speech tonight, and that is Hezbollah. Hezbollah has the largest number of operatives in the United States, skilled in the craft of terrorism and waiting to attack.”

While there’s little doubt that Graham’s concern over Hezbollah is real, his focus on the group may have been spurred by Florida politics.

“The Jewish community is incredibly influential in Florida Democratic politics,” Sabato said. “That’s where a lot of the money and tens of thousands of votes come from, so the focus on Hezbollah is probably helpful to him in that community. That won’t hurt him in the presidential primary either. It will probably help him compete in Jewish community against Lieberman’s religion and now John Kerry’s history.”

Graham’s biggest disadvantages at this point, according to political analysts, is a lack of name recognition outside Florida and a limited time to hire staff and build a campaign apparatus.

“It’s late to be getting ready now,” Rothenberg said. “Other candidates have lined up supporters and paid staff, and they’re already putting money in the bank. February may seem very early, but we’re only 11 months out from the first Democratic contest.”

Rothenberg also wonders about Graham’s odd habit of keeping extraordinarily detailed daily diaries.

In 2000, Graham revealed to Time magazine the literally thousands of diaries he has kept on his hour-by-hour activities for decades. In what one Florida newspaper called a “mind-boggling attention to pointless detail,” Graham recorded his diet, the television programs he watched, the amount of time he spent traveling, and even the amount of time he spent rewinding a videotape. The senator said that the diaries help him with time management.

“The diaries have caused a lot of snickers inside the Beltway,” Rothenberg said. “Anybody who could figure out what he had for lunch in January 1983 may have a personality that’s a little too quirky and may put voters off.”

So far, the 2004 campaign has distinguished itself by its lack of frontrunner — even though several veteran senators and lawmakers from key states have already jumped in.

Rothenberg points to Delaware Sen. Joe Biden’s casual comment that he may enter the presidential race on ABC’s This Week.

“You get the sense that nobody is intimidated,” Rothenberg said. “It’s sort of, ‘What the heck?’ If you have some platform or cause, there’s still a possibility of getting in.”

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several papers including the Boston Globe.


The Latest