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Graham’s Backers Courted by Rivals

The departure of Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) from the Democratic presidential contest has left the remaining nine candidates in the race scrambling to scoop up endorsements from Democrats in Florida’s Congressional delegation.

Much of the focus since Graham’s Oct. 6 announcement has been on the efforts of his rivals to harvest his Florida base for campaign funds, a rich treasure trove that had been largely off limits with Graham in the race.

But each campaign is also working hard to court Graham’s Congressional backers, hoping to use them as a foothold to further support in the Sunshine State.

“Almost everybody [among the presidential candidates] has called me personally and I have told everybody the same thing,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.). “I am going to support the last person standing.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said he had heard from every candidate — with the notable exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton — since Graham bowed out.

Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) said Friday he has been contacted by a number of the campaigns but declined to name names. Nelson said he is devoting much of his attention to the pending re-election decision of Graham.

“I am concentrating on Graham to get him to run for re-election,” said Nelson, who expects a decision this week.

Fellow Florida Democratic Reps. Kendrick Meek, Allen Boyd, Jim Davis and Peter Deutsch are also now free agents in the presidential endorsement game.

Of Florida’s Democratic Members, only Rep. Robert Wexler had not backed Graham, opting instead to endorse Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) presidential campaign. A Wexler spokesman said his boss and Lieberman were long-time friends.

No House Members or Senators outside of Florida had signed on with Graham’s campaign.

While Florida has been a touchstone among Democratic activists since the 2000 recount that eventually awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, it had not been expected to play a decisive role in the nomination process, given that the presidential primary comes one week after the March 2, 2004, Super Tuesday voting, where the nomination is expected to be locked up.

In recent weeks, however, Florida’s importance has substantially increased as state Democratic officials broached the possibility of conducting a straw poll in December to test the strength of the White House field.

Although the Democratic National Committee has voiced its opposition to the idea, the state party appears set to approve the straw poll at its annual meeting next month.

A win at the straw poll would likely boost a candidate going into the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and even the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27.

Hastings acknowledged that the straw poll had added another wrinkle to the calculations of Florida Members looking for a new horse in the presidential field.

“We are politicians,” said Hastings. “We will keep an open mind.”

Another mitigating factor in the decision-making of Hastings, Meek and Brown — all members of the Congressional Black Caucus — is the CBC debate in Detroit, scheduled for Oct. 26.

It is the second debate sponsored by the CBC — the first was in Baltimore in September — and a number of caucus members are expected to weigh in for a candidate soon afterwards.

Meek said he plans to attend the debate but made no promises about which candidate he would support.

“I need to figure out who is going to be in the game when it comes to Florida,” said Meek. “You can’t keep backing people that drop out.”

Spokesmen for Deutsch and Davis said their bosses had not yet decided whom they would support and would not be available for comment.

Both Boyd and Deutsch attended a late September briefing on Capitol Hill by newly minted presidential candidate — and retired general — Wesley Clark. Davis did not attend the meeting, according to a knowledgeable source.

Boyd spoke highly of Clark at the time but emphasized that he was not considering abandoning Graham. He did not return repeated calls for comment.

Many of Boyd’s Blue Dog colleagues have already endorsed Clark, and it would seem like a logical next step for the Florida Democrat, who has just announced he will run for re-election to the House, backing away from the Senate race.

Aside from Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Clark has been the most aggressive of the nine Democratic candidates when it comes to courting support from Members of Congress.

He now has 12 Member supporters, still far behind Gephardt’s 32. Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), one of Clark’s lead backers on Capitol Hill, has predicted the retired general will have upwards of 50 endorsements before the primaries begin next year.

Where those Members who had previously supported Graham eventually decide to take their support will provide a window into the general sentiment about the electability of the candidates in the presidential field.

“I want to listen to them and figure out who has the best chance to win,” said Brown. “I want anybody but Bush. This has been a horrible two years coming from Florida.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.