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The clock is winding down for Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who has had a long and distinguished political career. Always something of a long shot in the Democratic presidential race, he hasn’t yet established himself as a serious contender for his party’s nomination. And there isn’t much time left for him to do so. [IMGCAP(1)]

Graham’s more than 35 years in public service, including two terms as governor, earned him the right to be treated seriously as a presidential hopeful. He is the ranking member on the Select Intelligence Committee; he comes from a politically important state; and he’s been considered more than once by Democratic presidential nominees as a possible running mate.

But while it’s still five months until the Iowa caucuses, a Graham victory scenario looks increasingly far-fetched. At the same time that he is pushing his NASCAR image and rural flavor, the Florida Democrat is also bashing President Bush on Iraq and raising questions about impeachment. Graham looks desperate, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s emergence as a credible contender has sucked up the oxygen that Graham needed for his run.

Graham entered the race late, after heart surgery. By the time he got into the contest, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dean had already been running for months. And some of them had been preparing for years.

Graham deservedly received a bye from the media when his first-quarter 2003 fundraising numbers came out. His $1.1 million raised wasn’t good, but the low number could have been an aberration because of his late start and surgery.

With a second-quarter showing of $2 million raised, Graham has run out of excuses. He finished June with $1.5 million in the bank — $2.5 million less than Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and only $400,000 more than Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who isn’t even a credible contender for the Democratic nomination.

More than two-thirds of Graham’s money has come from the Sunshine State, where he is both well-known and well-respected. Unfortunately for him, there are only so many dollars that he can squeeze out of the state (especially with Lieberman and others also raising money there).

The Florida Senator’s campaign knew that Graham’s second-quarter fundraising numbers were crucial. Everybody did. Lieberman’s campaign hit the panic button to raise cash in the final days of the quarter, and Gephardt strategists acknowledged a weak quarter after raising $1.7 million more than Graham did in the period.

So Graham doesn’t (and shouldn’t) get another fundraising pass. His weak money numbers are a major reason why he is increasingly lumped in with the also-rans of the race, not with the credible contenders.

Just as important, the calendar doesn’t do any favors for Graham. Iowa is Gephardt territory, with Dean and Kerry competing aggressively. In New Hampshire, the New England candidates have a huge advantage. And Graham isn’t a factor at the moment in the Feb. 3 states.

Graham’s allies argue that he will do well in Iowa and New Hampshire by appealing to rural voters, who are ignored by other candidates and who are seeking a more culturally moderate Democratic nominee.

They cite Democrat Mark Warner’s showing in rural Virginia in his victorious 2001 gubernatorial race as evidence that a rural scenario is realistic, and they point to a big turnout in Roanoke recently — when Graham brought a bluegrass music legend and a NASCAR favorite to one of his events — as evidence that Graham’s cultural appeal is working. In addition, they note that the large number of liberal candidates will divide the left-of-center Democratic vote.

But while rural areas are crucial in the Iowa caucuses (because they are over-represented in the caucuses), the Warner analogy simply doesn’t work.

Warner was a multimillionaire businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Senate and then spent years positioning himself for a run for Virginia governor. He had no primary opposition. The Republicans, meanwhile, had an ideological primary between two state officeholders. In addition, the party had held the governorship for years, and a state budget squeeze caused a minor war within GOP ranks.

During the general election, Warner cross-pressured conservative rural voters by downplaying abortion and gun control, and he out-performed most statewide Democratic candidates in rural areas.

However, Bob Graham isn’t Mark Warner, a nomination fight is not a general election, Graham doesn’t have Warner’s huge financial advantage and, of course, Iowa isn’t Virginia. The situations, and the dynamics, are totally different.

Supporters of the Senator point to his maturity, past electoral successes, experience in intelligence matters and “electable” Florida base as reasons why he’d be a terrific Democratic nominee. Maybe he would be. But that’s not the question.

Graham is targeting his time and resources to Iowa in an effort to boost his prospects there and in the overall race. But during the past few months, his prospects have dropped, putting his chances closer to Kucinich’s than to Kerry’s. Time is not on Bob Graham’s side.

Rothenberg Political Report

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