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Lagging Graham Quits Democratic Presidential Race

The Florida senator and ex-governor didn't draw much attention in his bid for the top spot, but he is seen as a contender for vice president.

October 07, 2003|Faye Fiore and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Graham of Florida ended his presidential campaign Monday night, abandoning a candidacy that never managed to gain any momentum in the crowded Democratic field.

Following several days of speculation that he would leave the contest, the three-term senator and former Florida governor announced his decision during a brief appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." He is the first contender to leave the race, and his withdrawal comes about 3 1/2 months before the first crucial test for the candidates -- the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

"I have made a difficult decision to withdraw my candidacy for president of the United States of America," Graham said. "I'm leaving because I have made the judgment that I cannot be elected ... primarily because of my late start" in the contest.

Given his low standing in the polls, his exit is not likely to produce any significant shift in public opinion for or against any of the nine remaining candidates, and he declined to endorse any of his rivals "at this time." But his standing in his home state makes him an instant contender for a vice presidential spot, an option he did not rule out.

"I am prepared to do whatever I can to contribute to a Democratic victory next November and the moving of this nation onto a new and better track," he said.

The main effect of Graham's decision may be the sudden availability of Florida's rich roster of donors to others left in the Democratic field.

"There have been a number of very prominent Democratic fund-raisers from Florida who, because of their loyalties and allegiance to Graham, have been sitting on the sidelines. I'd guess the Democratic money spigot in Florida is going to get turned on a little stronger now that the favorite son is no longer in the race," said Chris Lehane, a former campaign aide to former Vice President Al Gore.

After signaling his intent to run in late February, Graham officially launched his campaign in May. One of his major assets was his popularity in Florida, a state that could prove as pivotal in the 2004 contest as it was decisive in the neck-and-neck 2000 race.

Yet he seemed to play catch-up from the start. His entry into the presidential field was months behind most of his rivals. Heart surgery in January not only postponed his official announcement but also raised questions about the vitality of the 66-year-old grandfather of 10.

"We did not have the time to lay the foundation across the country in order to finance what is a very expensive campaign," he said Monday. In the most recent reporting period, which ended Sept. 30, his campaign had raised about $2 million.

Despite high hopes at the start, Graham failed to capture significant interest, even while proving to be a surprisingly assertive and aggressive campaigner. At one point, he called for the impeachment of President Bush and criticized the war in Iraq as a dangerous diversion from what he said should have been the main focus -- capturing Osama bin Laden and routing Al Qaeda.

His criticism of the war with Iraq -- he voted against the congressional resolution that authorized the invasion -- might have helped separate Graham from the pack. But by the time he declared his candidacy, many Democrats opposed to the war had already rallied behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Rival campaigns have been talking recently about recruiting some of his staff in the expectation that he might soon fold his operation. He was meeting resistance from friends and donors. When retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark joined the race late last month, he instantly drew better poll numbers than Graham and raised money at a faster pace.

"You can only stay at the bottom of the polls so long, and then reality sinks in. He wasn't moving. He gave it his best -- 110% -- but the polls didn't move and the money didn't flow," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "He had pretty much tapped everybody he could in Florida, and asking them to pony up again wasn't working too well."

Although he consistently denied that his campaign was actually an audition for a vice presidential spot on the ticket, Graham was seen from the beginning as a potentially perfect No. 2 man. His trouble was being viewed as a viable No. 1.

Even with a failed presidential run on his resume, he remains a top prospect as a vice presidential pick.

"He's still a very, very popular senator and was a very, very successful governor in potentially the most important state in the general election," Lehane said. "So, by definition, he will surely end up on the short list of whoever the nominee turns out to be."

Some in Florida, however, might prefer that Graham stay put in a closely divided Senate, a seat to which he has been comfortably elected three times. Graham said Monday he had not yet decided whether he would seek a fourth term. His current term ends in January 2005.

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