By Jena Ardell
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Unswayed by Republican counterattacks, Florida Democratic senator Bob Graham took another swing at Bush last week. Appearing at the 9-11 Commission hearings here, he charged that "frustrating" Bush administration inaction was keeping hidden his congressional joint inquiry report on the World Trade Center attack. Thus, he said, the public doesn't know what the government "knew about Al Qaeda and the potential for terrorist attacks on our homeland before 9-11."
Graham, only recently laughingly discussed as a possible running mate for Kerry or Lieberman, suddenly emerges, along with Senator Robert Byrd, as the hard man of the Democratic Party in Congress, the only potential candidate who actually seems to know anything about Bush's handling of 9-11 and the war on terror, and who is willing to stand up and be counted. "He should be taken very seriously," said Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford, who has followed Graham for two decades. "Graham does not take risks he can't handle. He is no grandstanding bomb thrower."
Still, it's hard to believe. "I mean, we're talking about a politician who state legislators used to call 'Gov. Jello' for his milquetoast manner," Ron Cunningham of the Gainesville, Florida, Sun wrote last week. "A guy the press used to refer to as 'Blobby Bob' for his amazing ability to avoid being pinned down on an actual controversial position (not to be confused with that other, better known nickname, 'Bloody Bob,' for his fierce adherence to his most solidly conservative credential: support for the death penalty). But this is a new Bob Graham."
Graham's chances as a presidential candidate might seem slim, with little or no attraction in either of the early and bellwether contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his allure for the Democrats is that he might take Florida from the Republicans. They relish the thought of an election eve debate between Cheney and Graham.
In Nebraska in mid May for a Democratic candidate debate, Graham said the Iraq war was a "distraction" that allowed Al Qaeda to gather itself for the Saudi attack. "Al Qaeda was on the ropes 12 to 14 months ago, but we didn't pursue the war in Afghanistan to its conclusion and break Al Qaeda's backbone," said Graham. He added that the Saudi bombings "could have been avoided if you had actually crushed the basic infrastructure of Al Qaeda."
"That's not a serious statement based on understanding of foreign policy," retorted Ari Fleischer. "It's much more a statement based on somebody who is involved in Democratic presidential primary politics, who is trying to carve out a name or an issue for himself." Florida Republicans jumped at the chance to take a shot at a man who, in the words of GOP Senate hopeful Congressman Mark Foley, was "exploiting the death of Americans in Saudi Arabia to jump-start his fledgling presidential campaign."
But the pros take him seriously. Larry Harris of Mason-Dixon, a polling firm based in D.C. and Florida, said he thinks Graham has a shot at winning the nomination. "I don't think he's interested in being vice president," he said. "He's got the paradigm of being a Southern governor, and if you look at the last three Democratic presidents, they've been Southern governors." Harris went on to point out that the strongest issues for Republicans are military defense and the war on terror and that Graham can compete in those areas because of his experience on military and intelligence panels and because he ran a large state. "He's got the credentials," said Harris. "He's coming to the table with much more than George Bush ever brought to the plate."
Said CQ's Crawford, "Graham is like Tony Soprano playing a college professor, a street-smart tough guy who acts like a nerd. That's how he has whipped the Republicans every time they came after him in Florida."