- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who abandoned his bid for the White House Monday, will determine as early as this week whether he will run for re-election to the Senate next year.

“He’s headed back to Florida to spend time with family and friends and to mull this over,” said Paul Anderson, spokesman for Mr. Graham’s Senate office. “We’re talking days, not weeks.”

Campaign aides to the three-term senator say he has not made up his mind, but some have suggested privately in recent weeks that his heart would not be in a Senate re-election race.

If he declines, the race next year to succeed him in the state that determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election would become one of the nation’s hottest Senate contests.

It would be “very wide-open,” said Mason Dixon pollster Brad Coker.

Viable candidates on both sides are jockeying for a run, meaning each party’s candidates likely would not be chosen until sometime next year.

If Mr. Graham, 66, does run for re-election, the popular former governor faces diminished poll numbers at home.

In past races Mr. Graham has won as much as 30 percent of Florida’s Republican voters because of his measured, down-home style and nonpartisan hard work for Florida. But during this Democratic presidential-nomination contest, Mr. Graham relentlessly criticized President Bush for his handling of the war on terrorism.

Mr. Graham’s overall job-approval rating in Florida slipped to 53 percent this past summer from 64 percent in 1999.

“He’s a bit more vulnerable now than in the past,” Mr. Coker said. “But he’s still a favorite.”

After squelching rumors last week that his campaign was collapsing, Mr. Graham surprised even campaign workers Monday night when he appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program to announce he was quitting.

Other campaigns scurried late into the night to issue press releases praising Mr. Graham, his contributions to the presidential race and future contributions to the party. There was little discussion, however, over how Mr. Graham’s 2 percent of the Democratic presidential vote would be divvied up among the candidates.

“He wasn’t commanding a whole lot of support,” Mr. Coker said yesterday. “It’s not like there’s this huge bloc of Bob Graham supporters out there who woke up this morning looking for a new candidate.”

The biggest beneficiary of Mr. Graham’s departure is expected to be Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who will travel to Florida next week in the hope of luring some of the state’s wealthy donors who had committed to Mr. Graham. Mr. Lieberman is well-regarded among Florida Democrats still angry about the 2000 presidential-election recount. Also, Florida’s large Jewish population has been supportive of the Jewish Mr. Lieberman.

Mr. Graham’s biggest contribution to the race may be yet to come, as he is considered a top vice-presidential contender who might be able to deliver crucial Florida for the 2004 Democratic nominee.

Mr. Graham was coy about the prospect: “That’s not a decision for anyone other than the nominee,” he said. “I am prepared to do whatever I can to contribute to a Democratic victory next November, and a moving of this nation onto a new and better track.”

But Florida is also a state governed by Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, and polling this summer showed Mr. Graham losing Florida’s presidential vote to George W. Bush by 4 percentage points.

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