- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Sen. Bob Graham yesterday postponed a final decision on seeking the Democratic presidential nomination until after he recovers from planned surgery, putting on hold a decision that some Republicans believe could significantly change President Bush's electoral map.

"In terms of personal passion, message, response from supporter groups, putting together a campaign organization in all of those factors I was a go for announcing," Mr. Graham, Florida Democrat, said yesterday.

"Then I came to the final issue, which was health. … I have a [heart] valve that needs replacement, so I am going to have that done during the week of February 3."

Mr. Graham said he would wait until he had recovered to make a decision, which he said would be based on "both political viability and second, how I personally feel."

Republicans worry that if Mr. Graham wins the Democratic nomination he could win Florida in the general election, taking a key state Mr. Bush won in 2000 and making the electoral math much more difficult for Republicans.

"He's a very formidable senator, and I think he would be a very formidable candidate. He would certainly make it very difficult [for Republicans] to win Florida," said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist.

"I think he'd win California, I think he'd win New York. That's a pretty good base to start from. I'm not sure you can say the same about any of the six guys running, with any certainty."

Mr. Graham, 66 and a three-term senator, acknowledged that was part of his appeal.

"About a third of the electoral votes are pretty much locked up by the Republicans, about a third are locked up by the Democrats. Of the third that are in competition, Florida is the largest of those states," he said.

Still, Republicans viewed him as a long shot to win the nomination.

"The significant problem facing his candidacy is nobody knows him outside of Florida," said David Winston, another Republican strategist and president of the Winston Group, who said he may have a difficult time in the early primaries.

The six announced candidates Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and civil rights activist Al Sharpton have all spent time in key early primary states.

On the issues, Mr. Graham said he would have joined the six announced candidates in opposing the president's decision to side with the white students suing to overturn two University of Michigan affirmative-action policies, and he also would have attended a NARAL Pro-Choice America event this week.

But as former chairman and now top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said he brings a message on national security that the others cannot.

"I'm the only congressional Democrat who's a potential presidential candidate who voted against the Iraq [use of force] resolution, and I did so because I thought what would happen is exactly what has happened, and that is that the war in Iraq has diverted our attention away from the war on terror," he said.

"Resources have been diverted from Afghanistan to getting ready for the war in Iraq. We haven't moved out of Afghanistan to the other major areas of al Qaeda influence, such as Yemen, and we have done nothing against the most competent international terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah."

Mr. Graham also says the administration has been keeping secret information the public should know, including the true number of al Qaeda operatives now in the United States.

Mr. Graham's national security credentials could leave Republicans facing a unique situation, Mr. McKenna said.

"He is an economic populist, essentially, who at the very least has the possibility of getting to the right of us, credibly, on defense and security issues," Mr. McKenna said. "We haven't had a Democrat get to the right of us on those issues since John Kennedy."

In addition, Mr. Graham said only he and Mr. Dean bring experience as a governor five out of the past six presidents had been governors and he is from a key Southern state, though he was reluctant to say he was the "Southern Democrat" some strategists have said Democrats need.

"I consider myself to be a national Jeffersonian Democrat, but I do come from a state which is Southern in geography, in which a significant part of it is Southern in culture, although it is a very diverse state," he said.

Florida law prevents him from running both for president and re-election to the Senate. Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican, is considering a run for his seat, and other reported possibilities are Rep. Cliff Stearns, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and 2000 Senate nominee Bill McCollum.

On the Democratic side, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Reps. Peter Deutsch and Alcee L. Hastings have been mentioned.

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