- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. (AP) — Sen. Bob Graham, a proven vote-getter in America’s fourth most populous state, formally began his Democratic presidential campaign yesterday by accusing President Bush of shirking the war against terrorism to recklessly “settle old scores” against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.”This administration has ignored homeland security in all but name while it focused all its energy on Iraq,” the Florida senator told more than 500 supporters gathered in sweltering heat on his hometown’s Main Street.Mr. Bush’s father led an international coalition that pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, but stopped short of ousting Saddam.Mr. Graham, who served eight years as Florida governor before being elected to the Senate 16 years ago, cast himself as the Democrats’ most experienced and electable presidential candidate. This state, with 27 electoral votes, determined the last presidential election after an agonizing recount — and will likely be a battleground again in 2004.Introduced by his wife, Adele, as “simply the best” presidential candidate, Mr. Graham slipped momentarily on the stage steps before standing beneath a live oak tree and a sign that read, “Proven leadership working for America” and pledging to “bring us back together as one America.”The 66-year-old lawmaker must overcome several obstacles, including a relatively late start in the campaign, low name recognition outside Florida and questions about his health. Mr. Graham underwent major heart surgery in January and began putting his campaign together in late February.He staged a campaign kickoff yesterday in hopes of drawing attention and money to his fledgling presidential bid.As the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Graham intends to distinguish himself from the nine-candidate field by confronting Mr. Bush on the White House’s most potent political issue — the war on terrorism. At the same time, Mr. Graham is joining the Democratic chorus in criticism of Mr. Bush’s tax-cutting economic plans.”He has shown no sign of knowing how to lead us back to economic prosperity,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. Bush. “We need a president who will bring America back.”Mr. Graham accused Mr. Bush of squandering budget surpluses created during the Democratic Clinton administration. “It is painfully obvious this president has no economic policy other than granting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans,” he said.The senator wants to suspend the Bush tax cuts set to take effect in coming years and replace the package with his own plan: Eliminate the first $10,000 in payroll taxes, saving the average Americans $765 a year for two years, campaign officials said.That would reduce revenues to the Social Security and Medicare programs, but Mr. Graham would replace it by closing offshore corporate tax breaks and other loopholes, officials said. He will outline his plans tomorrow in Washington before heading to New Hampshire, where he will replicate his popular Florida “workdays” program by serving as a teacher for a day.Mr. Graham arguably has the most well-rounded resume in the Democratic field. First elected to the state Legislature in 1966, he has never lost an election and has frequently been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.Howard Dean of Vermont is the only other former governor in the Democratic field. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is the only other Southerner. Mr. Graham’s strategists plan to court conservative, rural voters — so-called “NASCAR Democrats” who normally don’t vote in large numbers.Mr. Graham, who voted for the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution sought by Mr. Bush’s father, opposed the younger Bush’s push for war on the grounds that it would distract from the global campaign against terrorism.

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