Inside the numbers: Bob Graham

Matt Towery

3/4/2003 12:00:00 AM - Matt Towery
A year away from the Democratic presidential primaries, let's go out on a limb and make two predictions. First, former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri will be a surprise frontrunner after the Iowa caucus. Second, newly announced candidate Sen. Bob Graham of Florida will be a lock for the Democratic nomination for vice president. Who will actually win the bid to take on George W. Bush is totally up in the air, and chances still appear slim that anyone can defeat the president. As noted several weeks ago in our national survey of 1,000 Americans, President Bush continues to run strong against the entire field of potential Democratic candidates. The exclusive InsiderAdvantage February poll showed 48 percent of respondents would vote to re-elect Bush against 31 percent for all Democratic challengers combined. Our polls also revealed a so-far undisclosed secret that might explain Bush's popularity, despite continuing uncertainty with Iraq and the stock market. When respondents in February were asked if they "are better off today than they were four years ago," 53 percent said yes. Only 30 percent said no, with the rest saying they consider themselves about the same or that they are undecided on the issue. Democrats must be pounding their fists in political frustration when they see no gains in public opinion over developments that would normally trigger public discontent. Whatever the reason for Bush's continued popularity, it remains an uphill battle for any potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. Newest among those challengers, as predicted in this column in early January, is Florida's Sen. Graham. The Capitol Hill veteran polled poorly in our first two monthly surveys of the potential 2004 Democratic field, but this means little in itself. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman continues to lead our presidential survey of announced Democrats, but this likely is more a function of his national name recognition than of his having the necessary strength in key primary states. Races for party presidential nominations are the ultimate chess match, and you can't always checkmate until you've first captured pawns such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Plus, Graham's entry into the race deals a serious blow to Lieberman in Florida, which is one critical state where he might otherwise gain electoral footing. Lieberman's presence on the 2000 ticket with Al Gore served to energize a significant and powerful Jewish voter bloc in South Florida. Absent Graham in the 2004 race, those who cannot forget the perceived injustice of Gore's 2000 defeat in the deadlocked Sunshine State would naturally gravitate to Lieberman's column. But now Graham, one of the strongest and most successful Democrats in modern Florida history, likely will remain on his state's presidential ballot, regardless of how he fares in earlier primaries. That can only hurt Lieberman's chances. Last year, our Super Poll of presidential candidates, which surveyed Iowa and New Hampshire voters only, showed that without an Al Gore candidacy, Rep. Gephardt would enjoy a strong base in Iowa. So far, Gephardt has done little to damage his appeal to that state's voters. With Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry running virtually as a favorite son in New Hampshire, Lieberman and the rest of the Democratic field may have to make up for lost ground later by pulling in the lion's share of the huge number of delegates left in the remaining primaries. But will they have the early momentum to pull that off? That leads us back to Graham. Aside from its abundance of delegates, Florida is seen by most experts as a must state for the Democrats if they are to have a shot at beating Bush in the general election. Given the solid trouncing that presidential brother Gov. Jeb Bush gave his well-funded Democratic opponent in last fall's gubernatorial re-election campaign, it may take a miracle to put Florida back in the Democratic column in 2004. And therein lies the secret of Bob Graham's campaign. After having recently undergone heart surgery, one might wonder why a successful U.S. senator would choose to pass up another re-election bid in favor of the rigors of a presidential race. The answer seems plain enough. Graham can enter the earlier primaries reasonably assured that no candidate will emerge as a clear frontrunner. In that event, two alternatives emerge. If lightning strikes, Graham's tough position on homeland security might shove him to the front of the pack. If not, he still appears to be in a strong position not only to play power broker in his popular home state, but also to offer his party its only reasonable chance of winning Florida in 2004 -- by making him its vice-presidential nominee. Regardless, it appears the Democrats will need more than Bob Graham to defeat Bush who, in a rough economy and faced with an uncooperative international community, still has most Americans feeling better than they did four years ago.