MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Democratic Sen. Bob Graham (search), an unbeaten 37-year veteran of Florida politics, launched his presidential campaign Tuesday by accusing President Bush of retreating from the war on terrorism to "settle old scores" between the Bush family and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
The ninth addition to the Democratic field, Graham confronted Bush on the president's most potent political issue - national security - while suggesting that his party rivals are not fighting hard enough against White House tax cuts.
"It is painfully clear that this president has no economic policy other than granting tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans," Graham told hundreds of supporters gathered beneath a blazing midday sun in his home town.
Graham, 66, who served eight years as Florida governor before being elected to the Senate 16 years ago, cast himself as the Democrats' most experienced and electable presidential candidate. Florida, with 27 electoral votes, determined the last presidential election after an agonizing recount - and will likely be a battleground again in 2004.
Even Republican Gov. Jeb Bush called Graham a formidable candidate, but said the president can win Florida again. "My brother can beat him - can whip them all," the governor said. A Mason-Dixon poll (search) in Florida found Bush would beat Graham handily if the election were held today - 53 percent to 38 percent.
With a Main Street backdrop, dozens of clever hand-painted signs and rock music thump-thumping from massive speakers, Graham produced the most colorful announcement ceremony thus far in the campaign. But he offered little new policy in a speech that began with a stumble.
Introduced by his wife, Adele, as "simply the best," Graham slipped momentarily on the stage steps before catching himself. He addressed the crowd from beneath a live oak tree and a sign that read, "Proven leadership working for America."
Graham said Bush's leadership has not worked to ease dangers posed by Al Qaeda (search) and other terrorists groups. "This administration has ignored homeland security in all but name while it focused all its energy on Iraq," he said.
Later, in an interview with reporters, Graham said Saddam probably had weapons of mass destruction but had never demonstrated a willingness or capacity to kill Americans. "Saddam is an evil man, but he was not our biggest threat," the senator said.
In his announcement, Graham said that as president he would jump-start the economy with investments in transportation, education and targeted tax cuts. He told supporters he was running to "bring back our economy. As governor, I led in the creation of over one million new jobs in this state, increased investment in education, housing, infrastructure and we still kept one of the lowest tax rates in the nation."
Just up Main Street from Graham's spot on stage, the storefront of a lingerie store carried a whimsical message: "Victoria's Secret" is that "Bob's gonna win," read the store's sign and a hand-lettered placard taped next to it.
It was the campaign's way of acknowledging that Graham must overcome several obstacles, including a relatively late start in the campaign, low name recognition outside Florida and questions about his health. The oldest candidate in the field, Graham underwent major heart surgery in January and began putting his campaign together in late February.
Talking to reporters afterward, Graham said he can make up for his late start, but, "I don't believe the other candidates are going to be able to close the gap in terms of experience."
Democratic activists said Graham's resume and Florida base give him automatic entree into the campaign's first tier of candidates. The list includes former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
No Democrat from the north or Congress has won the White House since 1960. Dean is the only other former governor in the Democratic field, Edwards the only other southerner.
Graham, who has never lost a statewide race, plans to court conservative, rural voters - so-called NASCAR Democrats who normally don't vote in large numbers.
Republican Party spokesman Jim Dyke said Graham's announcement was more about style than substance. "He had better music than Edwards, less substance than Gephardt, not as aggressive as Kerry, but he was more exciting than Lieberman," Dyke said.
As the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (search), Graham intends to take the toughest stand against Bush's anti-terrorism record.
"Instead of pursuing the most imminent and real threats to our future - international terrorists - this Bush administration chose to settle old scores," he said.
Later, the senator said he was referring to Iraq's attempted assassination of Bush's father as well as the 1991 Persian Gulf War in which the elder Bush stopped short of ousting Saddam.
Graham said he alone voted for a Senate amendment that would have blocked White House tax cuts in any shape or form, a claim that is technically correct but conveniently ignores his opponents' stances against Bush's tax-cut plans.
Graham wants to eliminate the first $10,000 in payroll taxes, saving the average Americans $765 a year for two years, campaign officials said. That would reduce revenues to the Social Security and Medicare programs, but Graham would replace it by closing offshore corporate tax breaks and other loopholes.