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Demo hopeful to right of Bush

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WASHINGTON — Florida was a geological afterthought, the last portion of the contiguous 48 states to emerge from the sea. Florida Sen. Bob Graham's probable quest for the Democratic presidential nomination emerges from his emphatic thought that President Bush's conduct of the war on terror is dangerously tentative. Graham's astringent criticism places him, alone among Democratic presidential aspirants, well to Bush's right.

Now in his 37th year in politics, this former state legislator and two-term governor is in the fifth year of his third Senate term and was until this year chairman of the Intelligence Committee. There he came to the conclusions that caused him to oppose the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. He believes the resolution is "too timid." He voted against it after the Senate rejected his amendment to authorize force anywhere against all terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, who "probably" will strike America as Iraq falls.

He charges that the Bush administration has politicized both the classification and the leaking of information. He says leaking the story of the Predator strike that killed al-Qaida operatives in Yemen embarrassed Yemen's government by revealing their cooperation with America.

He believes the 9/11 hijackers were given logistical and other help by a foreign government's — he will not say which — "facilitation network" in this country. He thinks that network remains in place and probably will assist terrorists here during a war with Iraq. The FBI, he says, has been "aggressively passive" in not responding to inquiries about this, but "the FBI as much as said" it is not allowed to be responsive.

Graham says the administration does not want to roil relations with this unnamed country as war possibly impends. But "here is what President Graham would have done" by now:

Recognize that al-Qaida is not the only, or the most competent, terrorist organization targeting American interests and America itself. Hezbollah, especially, has demonstrated "a willingness, even enthusiasm, to kill Americans" and its relations with Iran may give it access to that country's chemical and biological weapons, which are "greater in volume than Iraq's." And Hezbollah has a "significant presence" in America.

Graham says that in Damascus last July he told Syria's President Assad that America has proof of terrorist camps in Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon. Assad denied it. President Graham, says Graham, would expand President Bush's doctrine of pre-emption by telling Damascus that it must close the camps, or America will.

Cassandras make problematic candidates, but Graham believes he can bring many political assets to the nomination contest. Florida is the third-largest (behind California and New York) source of Democratic money. And Democrats, he says, cannot afford "a goose egg" from the South's electoral votes, of which 27 — two more than in 2000 — will be Florida's. To those who say Florida is not culturally Southern, he replies that it was during his formative years.

Noting that senators are rarely elected president, and that four of the last five presidents were first governors, Graham dryly says that voters want a chief executive with "some executive ability." He honed his coping with problems arising from the fact that "Florida has been living America's future." Its problems include growth (an average of 300,000 people a year for 30 years), aging (20 percent of Floridians are over 62), immigration (one town of 226,000, Hialeah, is 72 percent foreign born) and environmental hazards.

Asked to enumerate his vulnerabilities, the second thing Graham mentions is his age. He will turn 68 seven days after the 2004 election and would be second only to Ronald Reagan as the oldest president beginning a first term.

Third, he mentions his practice, which some might consider eccentric, of working a day a month — 386 days so far — at various jobs, from carpenter to garbageman. Fourth, he even wonders if it might seem odd that he wears only neckties bearing Florida's outline.

But his first response when asked about vulnerabilities is to pull from his suit jacket pocket one of the approximately 4,000 small spiral notebooks he has filled with the minutia of his days since 1974. A sample, covering a day in September 1994, appeared on Time magazine's Web site on July 10, 2000:

8:25: Awaken at MLTH (Miami Lakes Town House)

8:45-9:35: Kitchen, family room. Eat breakfast, branola cereal with peach. ...

12:05-12:20: MLTH bedroom, bathroom, change to red shorts.

12:20-1:20: MLTH kitchen, family room. Eat lunch (tuna salad).

This behavioral tic reflects not extreme self-absorption but extreme self-discipline. The former, not the latter, defined the last Democratic president, so cut Graham some slack.

Washington Post Writers Group