WASHINGTON – Underdogs in the struggle to reclaim the Senate, Democrats are finding that the presidential aspirations of two incumbents are creating the political equivalent of fighting with a hand tied behind one's back.
Long before Sens. Bob Graham and John Edwards ever uttered the words "White House" or "exploratory committee," Democrats were in a hole. The numbers favored the Republicans: Democrats must defend 19 seats in 2004; the GOP, 15. And geography messes with the Democrats' math. Seven Democratic-held seats up next year are in states that President Bush won handily in 2000; only two Republican seats - Illinois and Pennsylvania - are in states where Al Gore prevailed.
The entry of Graham and Edwards in the presidential race is delaying their decisions on whether to make another Senate run, and that unresolved situation leaves national Democrats in limbo, uncertain who their candidates will be in Florida and North Carolina while potential Republican rivals are up and running.
"There's a major chaos factor in these two sitting senators and their presidential plans," said David Niven, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.
Sure things are rare in politics, but a re-election bid by Graham, the popular former Florida governor and three-term senator, was as close to a lock as the Democrats could get. Graham, who won with 63 percent of the vote in 1998, easily could overcome the natural political obstacles in Florida: Republican strength in the swing state, 10 media markets, popular destination in a presidential year.
"Bob Graham, like Lawton Chiles, is a phenomenon to the extent that he's outside the traditional analysis," said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican strategist who served as chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. "Without him, Democrats are going to have to pick up a seat somewhere else in the country if they want to remain on the bench or sit out in the hall."
The earliest gauge of a candidate's strength is fund raising, and Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who has set his sights on Graham's job, reported raising $2.3 million from January to March. Other possible candidates are former Rep. Bill McCollum, who lost to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2000, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez.
Potential Democratic candidates are Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, and Alex Sink, who once ran Bank of America's Florida operations and is the wife of Bill McBride, the Democrat who fell to Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2002 gubernatorial election.
But "Democrats can't get interested until they know what Bob Graham is going to do," said Charles Whitehead, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "It's not a comfortable situation for people concerned about losing the Senate."
In North Carolina, first-termer Edwards is no political Bob Graham, but incumbency carries some weight. As a presidential hopeful, Edwards surprised Democrats by raising $7.4 million, the most in the nine-candidate field. That financial success is expected to further delay a decision on the Senate.
Meantime, North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Burr, who has the White House's backing in his candidacy for the Edwards' seat, has more than $2 million on hand, which adds up to two million reasons for state Democrats to press for a Senate candidate now.
A viable alternative is waiting in the wings - former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles, who lost to Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole last year. Bowles could fare better in 2004 simply because Burr is no political Elizabeth Dole.
But North Carolina is a Republican state, and through the years, the electorate has been impatient with the winner of the Edwards' seat. Since 1974, when Democrat Sam Ervin Jr., completed 20 years in the Senate, six men have held the seat, with voters casting out the incumbent four times.
And "not only has it (the seat) flipped, but Republicans win in presidential election years," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Southern Politics, Media and Public Life program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Between North Carolina and Florida, the Democrats' best hope in Georgia, Sen. Zell Miller, has decided not to seek re-election, and South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings has been doing little fund raising, fueling doubts about whether the 81-year-old Democrat will seek a seventh full term. He is expected to make a decision in the fall.
Based on the outcome in those four states, the GOP has a strong shot at increasing their Senate numbers in the South (11 Confederacy states, Kentucky and Oklahoma) to 21-5. By then, the transformation of the South from Democrat to Republican will be nearly complete.