Inside the numbers: Southern Dems

Posted: Aug 12, 2003 12:00 AM

I see little chance for a Democrat to defeat George W. Bush next year. Certainly not if one of the candidates doesn't soon break out of the pack of no-names and at least win the dubious honor of being the Democrats' 2004 nominee.

It stands to reason that one of the moderate Southern candidates, such as North Carolina's John Edwards or Florida's Bob Graham, could burst into the spotlight by abruptly announcing that they're going to skip the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Both those states are known for their quirky choices, and their election results are soon forgotten.

Why not take a page out of the GOP handbook of the early 1970s and create a "Southern" or "Sunbelt" strategy? After all, most political pundits are already looking to South Carolina as a first real test for Democrats who hope to carry moderate states. It might prove a stroke of genius for Graham or Edwards to bypass the waste of time, money and effort the Iowa-New Hampshire dance usually requires. They could instead concentrate on carrying South Carolina, Florida and Arizona, all of which vote early in the primary season.

With a recent union endorsement for Dick Gephardt, it's looking more and more like the gentle and amiable former House leader may repeat his Iowa caucus victory of over a decade ago. And the new celebrity Howard Dean now seems likely to battle it out with fellow New Englanders John Kerry and Joe Lieberman for the New Hampshire prize.

As for John Edwards, he has worked hard to build a base in Iowa, and perhaps that argues for him staying the more traditional course.

But Bob Graham has little to lose by traveling the unbeaten road. Newspapers have

described the longtime Florida governor-turned-senator as "eccentric." His recent hint that President Bush might be guilty of impeachable offenses for his alleged misrepresentations to the American people on Iraq looked like a moderate grasping at zany liberal straws. Still, Sen. Graham has a track record as a successful candidate in a hugely important state. He stands as one of the few Democratic candidates who come across as authoritative on both homeland security and the economy.

It's puzzling that Florida -- so valuable an electoral prize -- has failed to produce a major party nominee for either president or vice-president. Graham's moderate voting record and his potential ability to rein in Florida's electoral votes for the Democrats might quickly become more attractive to his party after the multitude of other Democratic candidates muddy and bloody themselves in Iowa and New Hampshire. Could the somewhat staid and mundane Graham start to look more statesmanlike as he waits for survivors to emerge from early state primaries, whose collective weight amounts to relatively little?

It looks like 2004 will be ripe for candidates of all stripes and ambitions to take innovative approaches in their respective races. For example, as impressive as Howard Dean's early Internet fundraising campaign has been, for political ingenuity it pales in comparison to the miraculous coup d'etat pulled off by the GOP in California. That's where the comparatively worthless Gov. Gray Davis has been recalled, and now eyes superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger waiting in the wings.

But Bob Graham is no Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George W. Bush is no Gray Davis. Bush is allegedly suffering a slide in his job approval ratings, but nothing of the order of the California governor. And the president still seems the prohibitive favorite to knock off any of the current crop of Democratic foes.

Still, it defies logic that an old pro like Bob Graham would fail to recognize the secret gold -- make that sunshine -- he holds in his pocket. A strong showing in just a handful of states similarly sunny to Florida would at least make Graham a likely Democratic nominee for vice president. Most of the remaining Democratic field will be hard-pressed to provide the party's presidential ticket with any degree of ideological balance.

Should the chance arise for Graham to run on the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee, he would face a tough choice -- stay put in the Sunshine State as one of its senators, or take a ride as second in charge of the national Democrats' sinking ship. For the moment, such issues are far in the distance. Our polling shows Graham near the bottom among current Democratic candidates. It's likely he will need a special strategy to turn that around.