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Graham aides fret over poor fund raising

NEW YORK — Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham is experiencing serious fund-raising problems that have put his campaign in peril, officials close to the Florida senator said Thursday.

Published reports had suggested Graham would raise $4 million to $5 million in the fund-raising quarter that ends Sept. 30, but he will raise less than that, said three officials close to the campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity.

His fund-raising coordinators for cash-rich California and New York quit the campaign in the last week, officials said. One of them has signed on with former Gen. Wesley Clark, who entered the race Sept. 17 as the 10th Democratic candidate.

The Democratic candidates were meeting here for an economic debate. "We will have enough money to compete," Graham spokesman Jamal Simmons said. "The people who left were contract employees whose contracts expired."

Graham's political team is more pessimistic than the candidate, who is still peppering aides with long-range ideas for an aggressive campaign, officials said. But Graham may soon have to decide whether to overhaul his campaign or even drop out, they said.

No decision will be made before the fund-raising period ends, officials said, because there is still hope for a rush of money at the end. One of the officials said there won't be serious discussions about the campaign's future until the first or second week of October.

Graham has one of the best resumes in the race: former governor and one of the most popular politicians in Florida, a key battleground state; moderate Democrat, and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He has been one of President Bush's most fervent critics on Iraq.

But his low-key, grandfatherly style has yet to grab the attention of Democratic voters in key states. He consistently places near the bottom in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, and has not significantly raised his national standing as a candidate.

Unlike some of his rivals, Graham has the option of seeking a fourth term in the Senate. He has not completely shut the door on running for re-election, and announced Senate candidates on the Republican and Democratic sides lack Graham's political clout. The filing deadline is May 2004.

Graham may not be the only candidate with political problems after Sept. 30, when front-runner Howard Dean is expected to lap his rivals in the money chase.

The former Vermont governor plans to report raising about $15 million. That would lift him to at least $23.5 million for the race so far and probably make him the Democratic money leader for the year.

Democratic strategists say Dean could raise at least double what his party's other top hopefuls will collect during the three-month fund-raising period.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are expected to be in the $4 million to $6 million range in third-quarter fund raising. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is expected to come in below that, along with the other four candidates in the 10-way Democratic race.