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After watching as his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination racked up Congressional endorsements, Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) made one of his first direct appeals to House Members on Wednesday when he met with the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

More than a dozen Members attended the meeting and while only one — home-state colleague Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.) — offered an endorsement afterward, most participants came away impressed with the message, if slightly uncertain about the messenger’s prospects.

Rep. Ken Lucas (Ky.) called Graham a “reasonable, down-to-earth guy” with “a lot of qualities the Blue Dogs like.”

Most Members interviewed echoed Lucas’ sentiment but said they needed to learn more about Graham, self-described as coming from the “electable” wing of the Democratic Party, and the other candidates before making an endorsement.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) are the only two other candidates to have officially met with the Blue Dogs.

Lieberman and Gephardt have secured the backing of four Blue Dogs. Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) and now Graham each have one.

Gephardt, a longtime House Member, still leads the overall Congressional endorsement game with the backing of 30 of his colleagues. Kerry received the endorsements of New York Reps. Gregory Meeks and Louise Slaughter on Wednesday, bringing his total to 16.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also in the race, and all but Kucinich have announced Congressional support.

The Graham campaign maintained that his visit with the Blue Dogs was not an appeal for endorsements — either individually or collectively — and said the campaign is not heavily focused on securing the backing of Members at this point.

That said, “Any time we appeal to folks, especially Members of Congress, who like what we are saying we would appreciate their endorsement,” said a Graham adviser, who added they are not in the business of “demanding” endorsements.

While, practically speaking, endorsements from Members of the House and Senate may mean little, they are an important symbol of support from those who know the candidates best and are aligned with them ideologically, and the late-starting Graham needs any victory he can seize on at this stage of the process to demonstrate that he is a legitimate contender for the nomination.

In that vein, the comments of Blue Dog leaders like Boyd and Rep. Chris John (La.) should give Graham supporters reason for optimism.

Boyd, who has known Graham for more than three decades, said two major factors led him to back the Florida Senator: He has served as governor and Senator with “the utmost integrity” and is “a centrist.”

Boyd’s endorsement also won’t hurt his hopes of becoming the Democratic Senate nominee if Graham decides against running for re-election in 2004.

Rep. Chris John (D-La.) said that “[Graham] legislates from the 50-yard line. I would anticipate the philosophical likeness should appeal to our guys.” John, himself, however, did not offer an endorsement.

In an interview outside a reception for the Women’s Campaign Fund on Tuesday night, Graham said that he is “appealing to everyone.”

“The [Democrats] who have recently been elected president have been pragmatists,” Graham added. “That’s the prism I see things through.”

Despite all the kind words, Graham must overcome the notion — both inside and outside of Congress — that he entered the race too late to be a major factor.

This challenge was summed up in the comments of Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), a Blue Dog and supporter of Kerry.

“Graham brings a unique set of assets,” said Ford. “He would create problems for this president.”

But, because of the Florida Senator’s late start, said Ford, “his real appeal is as a number two on the [presidential] ticket.”

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