Could Bob Graham be our next president?

The whispers became rumors, and now it seems the rumors are moving quickly toward confirmation.

Reports around the state suggest that it is only a matter of time until Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham enters the 2004 race for the presidency. If he were to pull off the victory, he would become the first president to hail from Florida.

Unfortunately for Graham, he will enter a primary race packed with strong candidates, many of them also senators. His competitors will probably be led by former vice presidential candidate and current Sen. Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. But the race will also be contested by a host of others, including governors, more senators and the controversial civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton.

So what are his chances at earning the Democratic nomination?

Graham should have the backing of his home state. Florida’s hefty political pull will make a difference in the primaries.

Graham also has solid name recognition and a good reputation. His trademark “work days,” in which he travels the state working different jobs for a day each, is a catchy gimmick.

In addition, Graham’s experience will not be questioned. He has served as a Florida senator, representative and governor, and is in his third term in Washington.

What may present a problem for Graham is money. Lieberman may have the edge of fundraising as he has the inside track on big-money contributors that helped him and Al Gore on the 2000 presidential ticket.

In addition, Sharpton will make at least some dent in the minority vote. That could cause problems for any or all of the other candidates.

And while the competition is fierce and months of campaigning lay ahead before a Democratic nominee is chosen, should he get the nod, how much of a shot does Graham have against President George W. Bush?

As it stands right now, any Democrat will have a hard time defeating Bush. But, the president needs only to ask his own father to learn how quickly that can change in the final two years of a term.

However, while his reputation is strong, how will Graham convince national voters that he can replace a sitting president?

Graham will no doubt extend the concept of his work days nationwide. It has worked for him throughout his political career, and it will give him an everyman appeal. But the key point in the campaign will probably be Bush’s record on foreign affairs. The president’s resume in that area, whether popular or unpopular, is extensive. Graham will have to show voters that he, too, is savvy about overseas politics.

In that effort, Graham will probably point to his service as chair for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has played a role in the War on Terror. In that capacity, Graham helped push through the USA Patriot Act, which allows for greater information sharing with worldwide intelligence agencies.

Domestically, Graham will likely clash with Bush on environmental issues. In addition, Graham will cite his work on the Finance Committee when formulating his economic game plan. If Bush cannot improve the economy during the next 12 to 15 months, that may become a large campaign issue.

So what does a Graham versus Bush run for the White House mean for Florida?

Basically, Florida will more than likely become a battleground state and again garner much of the national attention. The fight for the state’s 27 electoral votes should be interesting and, at the least, entertaining.

The president campaigned for brother Jeb and helped him earn a second term as Florida’s governor. After Jeb’s re-election, the president surely must have felt good about his chances for an eight-year White House residency. An election victory in Florida coupled with his home state of Texas would give Bush a decided advantage in the push to earn re-election.

But if Graham survives the primary, the popular senator would suddenly make Florida much more questionable. The president will probably be forced to spend time and money in the state, and the governor will feel the pressure of campaigning for his brother. Should Graham win the state, Florida’s electoral votes coupled with the oft-Democratic California and its 54 electoral votes will give him a sudden advantage.

But all of what could happen in Florida is pure speculation. In fact, the biggest problem for the Democratic party may be its wealth of candidates. Bush will probably be unopposed in the primary, leaving the Democratic candidates to spend vital money and resources to defeat one another before turning on Bush.

But, again, a similar situation led to the defeat of a Bush in 1992 when a relatively unknown Bill Clinton came out of a pool of Democrats to win the election.

What will happen in the primary is unknown. Graham may, in fact, prove all of the reports wrong and refuse to run.Is Graham presidential material?

Looking at presidents during the past 30 years, executive experience as a state governor has been a common trait. Graham shares that trait. But there is a difference with recent presidents.

A second common trait in recent history has been for presidents to emerge from outside the Washington beltway. Graham has been an insider for a long time. Will that make a difference?

Also, Graham has not faced a difficult campaign in a long time. His re-election campaigns in the Senate have been easy. To win the presidency, he will have to fight in the mud, and the campaign will be a long hard struggle.

If only one conclusion can be accurately drawn, it’s that Florida will know soon if one of its own will push for the White House. It’s getting late in the game politically, and to have any kind of shot, Graham will have to decide with relative speed.

And, for once, if Graham does choose to run, Florida may finally end an election a winner.