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Fla. Pols Wait on Graham

With Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) looking more like a presidential candidate than a candidate for re-election, a handful of anxious would-be contenders are awaiting his decision before proceeding with plans to run for the seat next year.

Graham, a popular former governor who has held elected office in the Sunshine State since 1966, would be heavily favored to win a fourth term if he seeks re-election. However, if he tosses his hat into the crowded presidential ring, a highly competitive fight to replace him would be assured in the battleground state that took center stage in the 2000 presidential election.

“If I don’t run for the Senate and that is an open seat there will be a lot of people, a lot of Democrats as well as Republicans, looking at it,” Graham said last week, adding that he thinks Democrats would be able to hold the seat.

Although both Florida Senators are Democrats — Sen. Bill Nelson (D) won the seat of a retiring Republican in 2000 — the GOP has become an increasingly dominant force in the state. The party now holds the governor’s office and controls the state Legislature, as well as the state Cabinet and nearly three-quarters of the Congressional delegation.

National GOP strategists smell a ripe pick-up opportunity if Graham’s seat becomes open in a presidential election year. Under Florida law, Graham is prohibited from running for both offices.

So far, Rep. Mark Foley (R), who had $1.8 million in the bank on Nov. 25, 2002, has made the most noise of the potential candidates who would run for the seat. While he has not formed an exploratory committee, Foley has been traveling the state gauging support for a run.

“I’ve been going around the state for the last four and a half years trying to build a network, so I’ve got a little bit of a head start,” Foley said in a recent interview. “The soundings have been good. The meetings have been great, and I’ve been able to promote the agenda that I’ve been working on anyway in the Congress, so it hasn’t been a waste of energy.”

Foley said he may run regardless of what Graham decides to do.

“That’s a much more difficult race,” Foley conceded. “I don’t kid myself. He’s popular in Florida and would make it much more difficult.”

But if Graham doesn’t run for the Senate, Foley is likely to face a crowded primary.

Among the GOP candidates most often mentioned are former Rep. Bill McCollum (Fla.), state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez and Tom Gallagher, formerly the state insurance commissioner.

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan (R) had also been eyeing a run for governor or Senate, but last week he signaled his interest in becoming president of Florida Atlantic University and took his name out of contention.

Byrd, who recently became speaker after just six years in the Legislature, has indicated he might challenge Graham, should the incumbent choose to stay.

McCollum, a Clinton impeachment trial manager who retired from the House and was handily defeated by Nelson in 2000, said he is being encouraged to mount a comeback if Graham does not run.

“I’ve stayed prepared for the possibility that he might retire this time,” McCollum said Friday, indicating that he would be able to quickly reassemble his 2000 campaign apparatus.

Still, his decision hinges on Graham’s announcement. “I’m not going to put the horse before the cart,” he said.

Gallagher and Martinez, who represent the more moderate wing of the party, are widely viewed as would-be candidates for governor in 2006. Party leaders could forge a deal between them in an effort to get one to opt into an open Senate race.

Newly elected state Attorney General Charlie Crist, Rep. Cliff Stearns and freshly minted Rep. Katherine Harris have also been mentioned as GOP candidates.

A spokesman for the Florida Republican Party declined to speculate at all about the potential 2004 field.

“There’s just so many ifs and maybes, we’re staying completely out of it,” said Towson Fraser.

Meanwhile, as Democrats also anxiously await Graham’s decision, the names of a few possible candidates are being quietly mentioned.

“I think the names that have been tossed around since Graham’s initial floating of his run for the presidency have given us a good bench to work from,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Ana Cruz.

Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who had $2.5 million in the bank at the end of November, considered but opted against running for the Senate in 2000 and is one of the names most often mentioned if another open seat presents itself.

“I think Deutsch is probably the most serious-intentioned contender, and my thought is that he would move quickly if Graham decided to run for president and not run [for Senate],” said one Democratic operative in the state.

Deutsch, 45, has said that he would seriously consider running if Graham does not.

“He hopes that Florida will retain the leadership of Senator Graham,” said Deutsch spokeswoman Adriana Surfas. “Depending on what the Senator decides to do, at that time the Congressman will consider what his options are.”

Still, some wonder whether Deutsch has deep enough roots in the state and note that his candidacy could be challenged geographically because he hails from the southern tip.

“The question is, is a South Florida New York Jew electable statewide in Florida?” said a Democrat familiar with Florida politics. “If you look at the statewide elected officials in the past several years, the Democrats are not the ones coming out of South Florida.”

Perhaps the most attractive Democratic Senate candidate would be Rep. Jim Davis, a former state legislator with moderate credentials and a central Florida base.

Davis, 45, has made his future statewide ambitions widely known and he came close to running for governor last year. The lure of running for that office may prove problematic for both parties if they are faced with recruiting top-tier Senate candidates next year.

Davis, like Republicans Gallagher and Martinez, is considered likely to seek the party’s nod for governor in 2006. Current Gov. Jeb Bush (R), elected in November to a second term, is barred from running again.

Nelson is also facing his first bid for re-election in 2006 and could attract a field of top-tier challengers, especially if Graham seeks re-election next year.

While Deutsch and Davis remain maybes, another member of the delegation, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D), has said he will definitely run if Graham does not.

The first black person to seek statewide office in Florida, Hastings ran for Senate in 1970 and placed fourth in a Democratic primary. He won two counties and took 13 percent of the vote in his first run for office.

Hastings’ bid, however, could be hampered by past ethics troubles. While a federal judge in 1988, he was impeached, convicted and removed from the bench after being charged and later acquitted by a Miami jury of conspiring to take a bribe in return for light sentences.

Another possible candidate is 41-year-old Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, one of the few successful Democrats at the polls in November.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated for the Senate include former Ambassador to Vietnam and ex-Rep. Pete Peterson and Rep. Robert Wexler.

There is some fear among Democrats that if Graham opts for a presidential run and his primary bid is unsuccessful, he would still have time to re-enter the Senate race. Florida has a mid-July filing deadline for federal candidates, months after the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and just two weeks before Democrats hold their official nominating convention.

“With Florida’s very late filing deadline, it’s theoretical he could run and not do so well and get back into the Senate race,” said Hastings spokesman Fred Turner. “That could really foul things up, I suppose.”

The scenario would wreak havoc for the party, since an open Senate race would have a domino effect, creating other open-seat races down the ballot.

A number of candidates are poised to make bids in the heavily Democratic districts of Deutsch and Hastings.

Regardless, if Graham does ultimately seek re-election, both Democrats and Republicans agree that the field of challengers would virtually vaporize.

“Senator Graham is the most popular public figure in Florida, period,” Turner said.

“He’s always been perceived, and probably rightly so, as someone who is very difficult to beat,” McCollum added. “It’s unlikely that you’d have many people running against him.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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