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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2003 / 6 Shevat, 5763

Matt Towery

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There comes a time when you must decide whether to put your face into the wind and go for it | Based on analysis of InsiderAdvantage's 2002 "Super Poll" of Iowa and New Hampshire voters, this column noted last March that U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a political unknown to most of the country, would likely emerge as a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. Just a month earlier, I had described the emergence of then-unknown Tampa attorney Bill McBride as the early choice of many party movers and shakers -- including those close to former President Bill Clinton -- to challenge incumbent Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last November.

While the strategy of finding a fresh face -- McBride -- worked in securing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over the better-known Janet Reno, it was no match for the charisma and governing record of Gov. Bush in the Florida general election. Now, the national Democrats must ponder the predicted Edwards candidacy, especially since it is accompanied by the same sort of support from national party powers that McBride enjoyed early last year. Will Edwards fare better in taking on President Bush than McBride did against little brother Gov. Bush?

The only formula that has worked for Democratic presidential aspirants since John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 has been to fashion themselves as Southern centrists. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in truth may have been screaming liberals, but at the times of their elections, enough voters saw them as occupying the middle of the political road.

In looking ahead to 2004, Florida again looms crucial to the hopes of anyone gunning for the White House. That goes not only for winning the general election, but the Democratic nomination as well. And that dynamic leads interestingly to another presidential possibility, this one from the Sunshine State itself -- Sen. Bob Graham. He is more seasoned than Edwards, having for years dominated his home state as its most powerful and respected Democrat. Graham served as Florida's governor from 1978 to 1986, and has been in the United States Senate ever since.

Both Edwards and Graham have unique advantages. For Edwards, it's his fire in the belly, which has energized him already to barnstorm through critical states in hopes of locking up early Democratic support. On Monday of this week alone, Edwards held several events in Atlanta, raising money and pressing for early commitments from key people and organizations.

Add to that Edwards' young appearance and his theme of appealing to "regular people," and the country might even now be witnessing the beginnings of the kind of image-building possibilities and media spin that could thrust Edwards along the same history-making path that put then-national unknowns Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton into the White House.

But Graham could counter with his own set of advantages. At 62, he is 13 years older than Edwards, but those additional years equip him with a world of experience and political savvy that Edwards -- or anyone else -- might find hard to beat.

Graham speaks authoritatively. His work on homeland security since 9/11 has propelled him to center ring of the nation's political big top. And his potential candidacy looks even more intriguing when one considers how popular he is in his home state among both staunch Democrats and the ever-growing bloc of Floridians who describe themselves as "moderate independents." That broad appeal is exactly what the Democrats need nationally to challenge President Bush. Even if Graham should seek his party's nomination and lose, he likely would be at the top of any list of potential picks for vice president, if for no other reason than Florida is now the most closely watched state in America for a national election.

Ironically, a Graham presidential candidacy could prove a plus for Senate Republicans. His seat, which is probably his for life if he wants it, would be vulnerable to a GOP takeover if Graham abandons it to run for president.

One early potential Republican frontrunner for that seat, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., is already letting it be known that he may use his $1.8 million political war chest to help secure the GOP Senate nomination early on. Foley is outgoing and articulate, and he's earned increasing respect and popularity since his election during the GOP sweep of the mid-'90s. The Florida congressman would likely prove a popular statewide candidate, much in the same style and manner of his friend Gov. Bush.

As for the various Democrats considering a run for the White House in 2004, there remains one huge impediment to success -- George W. Bush. With Bush now aggressively addressing the economy and simultaneously leading the charge against Iraq, there is little if any reason -- at least for now -- to believe his 2004 re-election will be a significant challenge.

But for the John Edwards and Bob Grahams of the world, there comes a time when you must decide whether to put your face into the wind and go for it. Graham's experience shows that he has what it takes to win elections. And Edwards seems to have the kind of ambition and perseverance that ultimately gets candidates to where they want to be -- even if it takes them more than one try to get there.

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