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Sunshine State Oddsmakers See Battle in Lieberman vs. Graham

Call it early-bird politics.

The possible entrance of Florida Senator Bob Graham into the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination already is prompting speculation that he would split the vote and funds of the Sunshine State’s Jewish community, complicating the expected presidential bid of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Neither man has declared his candidacy, but Graham, a three-term senator who also has served as Florida’s governor, told reporters last month that he is mulling a bid. Lieberman, who already is offering jobs to potential campaign staffers, is set to announce in mid-January whether he will run.

Both would be competing in Florida’s large, important Jewish community for campaign contributions and votes in the Democratic primary. Political observers say any such struggle would be pronounced, given the great popularity of both men. Graham, one of only a few Democratic senators who voted in favor of the 1990 resolution authorizing war with Iraq, consistently has won a large majority of Jewish voters. The Gore-Lieberman ticket, meanwhile, took a whopping 85% of Florida’s Jewish vote in 2000, and Lieberman has appeared many times in the state since then.

The chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, Monte Friedkin, said a Graham candidacy would “split [the Jewish community in Florida] to some degree, but not down the middle. Lieberman would get more support.”

But even without the Jewish vote, Graham would likely win the state, Friedkin said, because he would do better than a Jewish candidate in the state’s more conservative areas.

Such a victory could torpedo Lieberman’s national chances. “In every election [Graham has] run, he’s gotten the highest percentage of vote in the state,” Friedkin said. “In a primary, he will carry this state. Lieberman could lose nationally if he loses Florida… [because] to win the primaries you need New York, California and Florida.”

According to Florida Democratic fundraiser Jerry Berlin, Graham

“enjoys tremendous support in the Jewish community and has an excellent voting record on Israel, as does Joseph Lieberman. Those two current candidates are where most of the Jewish vote will go.”

Berlin said that Lieberman had gained some advantage in Florida by his early, unacknowledged campaigning. “Joe’s been running for two years,” Berlin said. Even so, Graham can count on important reservoirs of support. As finance chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the mid-1990s, Graham traveled around the country raising money for other senators and as a result has a network of people in other cities to call upon for his own campaign bid, Berlin said. Graham has also recently raised his profile by serving as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“The first primary is how much money they raise by year’s end. In that category he will do well,” Berlin said. “That’s what will make him viable.”

Neither Berlin nor Friedkin thinks that Graham is serious about mounting a presidential bid, however. “If he were serious, I would be one of five or 10 calls he’d make,” Friedkin said. “He’s just keeping his name in the loop. Last election, he was on the short list for vice president.”

Lieberman’s fundraising firepower might also keep Graham at bay.

“Joe’s got a huge advantage in the money chase in that many of the biggest Jewish players in the U.S. are his best friends,” said Jay Haberman, a New York-based fundraising consultant for political campaigns. “I think Joe Lieberman is going to win a lot of the major Jewish fundraising commitments since doing so is a referendum on how far Jews can rise in American life.”

Spokesmen for Lieberman and Graham declined to comment for this story.

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