Spotting his rivals a multimillion-dollar lead in fundraising and a three-month head start in campaigning, Sen. Bob Graham is ready to take the wraps off the public side of his campaign for president.
The Florida Democrat, who said he originally planned to officially announce his candidacy on Monday, will instead begin his campaign with a few “low-key events” in his home state, starting in Orlando on Friday and Miami next weekend.
Graham said he decided against a full-fledged announcement and campaign tour because of the potential for it to appear unseemly in light of the ongoing war in Iraq. He also conceded that it would be foolish to hold such a big event when the media is focusing so much attention on Iraq.
“It’s not either patriotic or common sense,” he said. Instead, he will do the events in Florida before heading off on a three-day swing through Los Angeles and San Francisco in mid-April. From California, on the night of April 16, Graham said he will fly to New Hampshire for a two-day tour of the first-in-the-nation primary state.
In a sign of just how differently he’s approaching the race compared to his other Democratic rivals, Graham said Wednesday that his tour of New Hampshire will be his first full-blown political trip to the Granite State since 1984, when he campaigned for former Florida Gov. Ruben Askew’s bid for the nomination.
Graham was set to announce his campaign a couple of months back, but after a checkup to ensure he could endure the physical rigors of a campaign, he was forced to have heart surgery. A team of doctors replaced a defective valve, performed a double bypass and closed a pinpoint hole in his heart. Back in the Senate a month later, Graham was still not at full speed and within weeks the nation was at war, prompting him to again keep his presidential powder relatively dry.
Following those setbacks, Graham enters the race as perhaps the biggest question mark in the field. He has a ready-made resume for a presidential candidate, one he is so proud of that it will comprise his basic campaign slogan: “Best prepared to lead, most able to win.”
He’s a popular, two-term governor from a large Southern state and he has three Senate terms under his belt, including a stint as chairman of the Intelligence Committee. In the past 40 years, the only successful Democratic presidential nominees have hailed from the South.
But, by current standards, Graham would have been a late entrant even if he had been able to announce his candidacy in February. Other leading contenders for the nomination, including three of his Senate colleagues, John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.), had been laying the groundwork for their campaigns since early 2001.
They have each visited the battleground states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina at least a handful of times, set up leadership political action committees that funneled millions of dollars combined into those states’ Democratic campaigns, and set about snapping up the top talent for their staffs.
Graham did none of this. At this point, Graham has only signed a lease on a campaign headquarters in his hometown of Miami Lakes, Fla. The computers, telephone lines and other office infrastructure are still being assembled. There’s talk of a satellite office in Washington so Graham can do his political work when his day job as Senator requires him to be here, but it’s still at the discussion stage.
He has a highly regarded campaign manager in Paul Johnson, who served as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee under former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) in the mid-1990s. And Johnson has brought on board a top strategic adviser in Steve Jarding, who was political director of the DSCC under Johnson and has since become one of his party’s leading experts on Southern politics. Jarding was working for Edwards last year, but a falling out led him to leave the Edwards’ presidential effort.
Other staff announcements, including which firms will handle media and polling, remain in the works.
Despite his lack of long-term preparation for what figures to be the biggest race of his life, Graham believes that so little attention has been paid to the race by average voters to this point that there is plenty of time to play catch up. “Do you know when Bill Clinton entered the race in 1991?” Graham asked Wednesday, noting that the then-governor of Arkansas didn’t officially announce until the fall of 1991.
“I don’t think this is too late. I’m not doing this to run for president, I’m doing this to be elected president,” he added.
But the fundraising reports slowly trickling out this week from his rivals show that Graham has a lot of ground to make up in the money department. Kerry’s campaign announced that it had collected more than $7 million in the first quarter of 2003, slightly less than the $7.4 million Edwards raised in the same period. Lieberman took in more than $3 million, with the majority coming in March.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean raised $2.6 million for the first quarter. Another potential frontrunner, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), is not expected to release his numbers until some time next week, but, like Kerry, Gephardt’s numbers will be buoyed by the fact that he had about $2.5 million left in his Congressional campaign account to transfer into his presidential account.
Graham had only $243,000 in his Senate campaign account on Dec. 31. He declined to say how much he had raised for his presidential campaign account in the first quarter, but did everything possible to lower expectations about that tally.
Because of his heart surgery, he had only one month to raise money and no opportunity to hold major fundraising events. “All of it was raised by telephone solicitations,” he said.
Many donors also had questions about his health and needed assurances that he was ready for the rigors of a nonstop campaign, Graham said. Finally, he added, the war had a “chilling effect” on fundraising.
A Graham strategist noted that the more telling measure for the Florida Democrat will be the second-quarter fundraising. The strategist noted that the so-called frontrunners have now grabbed the “low-hanging fruit” for contributions.
If Graham can activate his base of donors — which, coming from Florida, is arguably as large or larger than any of his competitors — he could get into the money game fairly quickly, his campaign believes. “There’s no giant-killer, no 800-pound gorilla, no Al Gore,” the strategist said of the field. “The bottom line is, if there’s no one running away from the field, it’s never too late to get in.”
In his 1998 Senate race, facing very light competition, Graham raised $4.3 million, including more than $2.4 million from individuals from Florida, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Some Democratic strategists say it will take at least $15 million to be able to finance a decent campaign, unless Kerry and Edwards elevate their fundraising to an even higher level.
Some Democratic consultants say Graham, whose quirky personal reputation has been built recently around his meticulous personal diaries, is an outstanding “retail” politician in small settings — something that will be put to the test in the weeks and months ahead in living rooms and diners in places like Ames, Iowa, and Portsmouth, N.H.
“I feel very confident,” Graham said. “I enjoy those.”