Senator Bob Graham came to New York on May 19, hoping to capitalize on a wave of media attention to build support for his quiet campaign for President. The sudden interest has been a result of Mr. Graham’s remarkably blunt criticisms of the Bush administration’s war on terror: He calls the war in Iraq a “distraction” and suggests that the White House is engaging in a “cover-up” of security failures leading to the attacks of Sept. 11.
Sitting in an empty room at the Harvard Club after addressing a crowd of Democratic donors and activists, Mr. Graham suggested that the frontal assault he is leading may represent the Democrats’ only chance of winning next year. “Democrats had, I think, been lulled into thinking that security matters were owned by the President and that if you talk about them, then you were doomed to defeat in the debate with Bush,” Mr. Graham told The Observer. “My feeling is you cannot cede the security issues to the President, because they are such a high priority of the American people. They justify being talked about, and when they are talked about, the President is actually no giant in terms of national security.”
Mr. Graham is nothing if not earnest when he talks about security issues, or tax policy, or health care, or even straight political strategy. The oldest and most politically experienced candidate in the race-he is 66-he hopes that Democrats will take him and his policy prescriptions with the level of seriousness he feels they deserve.
But while Mr. Graham’s résumé should make him an instant front-runner in the Democratic primary, his style may prove to be an impediment. Uniquely among the nine Democrats hoping to run against President Bush in 2004, Mr. Graham’s words seem to generate more excitement on paper than they do coming from his mouth.
At the Harvard Club, at a meet-the-candidate event hosted by the centrist New Democrat Network, Mr. Graham addressed a crowd of about 100, including prominent Democratic fund-raisers like Alan Patricof and Bernard Winograd. He spoke as if someone were sleeping under the podium who he was afraid of waking up. He answered questions thoroughly, deliberately and in bullet-point format. When he told a joke, the audience laughed only after he explained: “That’s supposed to be a joke.”
In an interview afterward, Mr. Graham said that he hoped that Democratic voters would make their decisions based on something other than the ability to charm a crowd. “Mario Cuomo used to say that in the campaign you speak poetry, in office you speak in prose,” he said. “I probably have a greater tendency to speak in prose in both aspects. But I would think that the people who were here today … would be less persuaded by one-liners and more persuaded by the confidence in your analytical ability and your vision for the future.”
Some were, like Newsday eminence Jimmy Breslin, who went back to his desk after the event and filed a column entitled “Why Graham Will Win It.” Others weren’t. A member of the New Democrat Network, standing just feet from Mr. Graham as he shook hands after the speech, pronounced himself “completely uninspired.” (The N.D.N. is an influential organization of centrist Democrats which describes itself as the “political-action arm of the New Democrat movement.”)
The widely divergent opinions of the Senator’s performance speak to the central dichotomy of the Graham candidacy. His background would seem to make him just the sort of candidate Democrats need next year: Like the last three Democratic Presidents, he is from a Southern state. Like Bill Clinton, he’s a centrist-he chaired the Senate’s New Democrat Coalition. And he has won five statewide elections-he was Florida’s governor for eight years-in one of the nation’s most populous and most complex states.
In addition, he is able to talk about his plans to expand health care or balance the budget-he’s a deficit hawk-in the context of his long experience both as an executive and a legislator. Perhaps most important, he headed the Senate Intelligence Committee, lending authority to his substantive criticisms of the war in Iraq (he voted against authorizing military action there) and the administration’s conduct in the fight against terror at home and abroad. He also helped produce a 900-page report on alleged security failures before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He has accused the Bush administration of covering up those failures.
On the other hand, Mr. Graham’s campaign has yet to build up much in the way of momentum. He entered the race relatively late: His announcement, put off until the end of the war, wasn’t made until May 6. His fund-raising lags far behind that of the other major candidates. He is plagued by a perception-at least among political insiders-that he is running only to set himself up as a Vice Presidential candidate. And, of course, his media coverage has consistently made reference to his elusive relationship with that most prized of political qualities: charisma.
“Bob Graham has real gravitas on terrorism and such,” said Wayne Parent, chairman of the political-science department at Louisiana State University. “He’s legitimately in a position to make those sorts of criticisms of the Bush administration, and to that extent, I think Democrats should be happy to see him as the nominee. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t seem to have the personality to get there.”
It seems odd that Mr. Graham, with his undeniably stellar record as a campaigner and a politician-he hasn’t lost an election dating back to when he won a race for the Florida legislature in 1966-should be considered weak in the political-skills department.
Mr. Graham, by now, is one of the longest-serving elected officials in Florida, and his intimate style-he uses written diaries to keep track of constituent requests and stages “work days,” in which he steps into the jobs of ordinary people-has made him one of the state’s best-known public figures. But it isn’t clear whether the folksy appeal he exerts in his home state will translate into a competitive national Presidential race.
“He’s been around for so long in Florida, he’s like everyone’s uncle,” said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “But history is on his side in Florida. He’s not going to get the same kind of treatment from the press or the public when he runs for President.”
An ‘Insane’ Strategy?
Mr. Wilson also contended that Mr. Graham’s attacks on White House security policy were “insane,” pointing to polls showing that Americans trust President Bush over any Democrat on that issue. “I don’t know who’s giving him that advice, but if he thinks he can get to the right of the President on defense, nobody-not even the Democratic base-is going to buy it,” he said. “Realistically, Graham’s chances of winning the nomination on that argument, let alone the general election, are about as good as my own.”
Mr. Graham, by his own account, is a political optimist. He predicts that the balance of power in Congress next year “is probably going to stay about where it is,” but that voters will be ready to elect a Democratic President. He also listed a number of reasons-geography, experience, political credibility-why he thinks that Democrat will be him.
Mario Cuomo, a Democrat whose charisma and oratorical skills made him an early favorite for the nomination in 1992-before both he and then-Governor Graham declined to run-is among those who believe the Senator is being woefully underestimated. “Bob Graham has a quality that I would describe as relentlessly intelligent, but inoffensively so,” Mr. Cuomo said. “He doesn’t use it in a way that suggests that he’s reminding you of how much brighter than you are he actually is.”
And what about his style problem?
“I don’t think he has a style problem at all,” Mr. Cuomo said. “In the end, persona is important-what you look like, what you sound like-but it is not as important as rationale. And he has all the right rationale.”