Focused on Florida

Robert Novak
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Posted: Feb 28, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Democratic strategists are focused on possibly putting a Floridian on the national ticket, but it may not be the most obvious choice, Sen. Bob Graham. This year's vice-presidential nominee could be Graham's junior colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson.

Graham recently announced his availability for the vice presidency, following his short-term bid for president and his announcement that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate. Graham did not help his reputation with his shaky presidential run, but Sen. John Kerry is believed to be looking for any running mate who would guarantee electoral votes.

The Kerry team could pick either Graham or Nelson, depending on who would do the most for the ticket. Graham, a former governor, is better known in Florida. But first-termer Nelson is a fresher face who might do better around the country. Graham is 67 years old, and Nelson is 61. Their lifetime voting records are rated by the American Conservative Union as 19 percent for Graham and 17 percent for Nelson.

THE 9-11 DISPUTE

Fear by Senate Republican leaders that Sen. John McCain would indefinitely postpone passage of the highway spending bill convinced a reluctant House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to agree to a two-month extension of former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean?s independent commission investigating the 9-11 attacks.

After private talks with a fellow Illinois Republican, former Gov. Jim Thompson, Hastert had insisted that the Kean Commission conclude on schedule May 27. That put the speaker in disagreement with President Bush, who favors a two-month extension. Hastert worried that the investigation is lurching out of control with partisan Democrats -- such as Washington lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste and former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana -- using the commission as an election-year weapon against Bush.

A footnote: Their differing views of the Kean Commission added to increasing conflict between the president and the speaker. In a White House meeting Wednesday, Hastert protested Bush?s plans to veto the highway spending bill pending in Congress.

DOWN IN GEORGIA

The possibility that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina can prolong his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination may be eliminated Tuesday in the Georgia primary.

Democratic insiders who have hoped to prolong the Edwards bid were chilled by polling data showing that the last Southerner left in the field will be hard put to collect 40 percent in Georgia against front-running Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. That undermines Edwards' claim that he is the only Democrat who can beat George W. Bush in the South.

Kerry should be able to mathematically clinch the nomination March 16 at the latest by winning in the Illinois primary.

ESTATE TAX POLITICS

A Republican plan forcing Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle to cast a politically damaging vote against permanent repeal of the estate tax may be foiled by the quest for a legacy by retiring Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

Estate tax repeal is popular in South Dakota, where Daschle faces a stiff challenge for re-election from former Rep. John Thune. Because permanent repeal cannot get the 60 senators needed to break a filibuster, Budget Chairman Nickles would prefer a permanent increase in the exemption that could pass and would be his final contribution before he leaves the Senate. Daschle would vote for the exemption hike.

A footnote: Thune, who narrowly lost his 2002 Senate race, is no longer telling such outside conservative groups as the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and Right to Life to stay away from South Dakota.

PENNSYLVANIA BROTHERS

Sen. Rick Santorum, the conservative chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is actively lobbying other conservative senators to get behind the re-election of his liberal fellow senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter.

National conservative organizations that are backing the Republican primary campaign by Rep. Pat Toomey against Specter had assumed Santorum was just going through the motions in supporting his colleague. Now, it seems that Santorum really wants Specter to win.

The White House strongly supports Specter. However, conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee are worried that Specter, who helped block Robert Bork's confirmation for the Supreme Court, would become their new chairman if he is re-elected. They will not go public with this concern.