Published January 13, 2015
Donald Burgess stands outside a 1950s-style diner with a "Bob Graham (search) for President" sign in his hands and a "Bob Graham for President" sticker on his shirt. Oh, how looks can be deceiving.
Burgess acknowledges he knows little about the Florida senator who wants to lead the country. He's just displaying the campaign items as a favor for a friend.
And come New Hampshire's leadoff presidential primary in January, Burgess plans to vote for someone in the crowded field of Democratic contenders, only right now Graham is an unlikely option.
He ticks off his preferences, for now: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"Those are the five I think have it at the moment," Burgess says.
Graham, who is about to arrive to greet the lunchtime crowd, isn't even an afterthought.
"I'm just being a good Democrat," Burgess says. "Anybody who could beat George Bush would be an improvement."
Graham can point to his eight years as Florida's governor and 16 years in the Senate and claim that he is the most experienced and electable of the nine Democrats running for the White House in 2004. But that is not the impression left so far with Burgess and other rank-and-file Democrats in New Hampshire.
"Who's Bob Graham, and what ticket is he running on?" a woman hollered out her car window last week when she spotted Graham's campaign signs in a Manchester parking lot.
Graham, who was standing next to the signs, stepped forward to introduce himself.
According to one recent poll, Graham's name recognition among New Hampshire Democrats has doubled from 42 percent to 80 percent during the past four months. Nonetheless, the percentage of those who plan to vote for him stood at 2 percent.
Most polls put Kerry ahead, followed by Dean.
"You've got Dean on one side the state, and you've got Kerry on the other side," said Bill Cashin, a former Manchester alderman who is supporting Graham. "We understand the numbers. We know we're in an uphill fight, but I think we're going to see some surprises."
A few elections ago, Cashin was among the first elected officials in New Hampshire to support another unknown Southern governor. He sees similarities between Florida's Bob Graham and Arkansas' Bill Clinton.
"If he walks in a room, he reminds me of Bill Clinton," he said, watching Graham chat with elderly residents of a Manchester apartment building. "It's like he has nothing else to do today. He'll spend as much time with these people as they want."
Graham also compared himself to Clinton, who finished second to Sen. Paul Tsongas in the 1992 New Hampshire primary after a campaign marred by scandals involving marital infidelity and the draft.
Clinton successfully cast himself as winner of the expectations game, labeled himself "the Comeback Kid" and went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
"I do believe we will exceed expectations," Graham told reporters in Manchester. "I don't know if we'll be the 'Comeback Kid,' because I don't expect we'll be knocked down on the floor before then."
Hoping to emulate Clinton's fund-raising successes, Graham last month hired Marvin Rosen, a major Clinton fund-raiser, as his national finance chairman.
Though he has not released his latest fund-raising figures, Graham's second-quarter total is expected to fall between $2 million and $3 million, compared with Dean's $7.5 million, for example.
When those two candidates met at an Independence Day parade in Amherst, Graham congratulated Dean on his success and said the Graham campaign is working on a more aggressive Internet fund-raising approach.
"His success using the Internet has forced the rest of us to relook at our campaigns," Graham said.
At the Father Burns Senior Center in Manchester, Graham was both earnest and entertaining.
He talked about his plan to improve health insurance coverage through expansion of Medicaid and Medicare (search). He sang his campaign song ("We've Got a Friend in Bob Graham") and a second one that compared growing vegetables to raising children: "Plant a turnip. Get a turnip. Maybe you'll get two. That's why I love vegetables, you know that they'll come through!"
Graham learned the second song during one of his trademark "work days" on the campaign trail, appearing as an actor in the musical "The Fantasticks." He kept up his tradition of spending a day learning a new job on Saturday, when he became a conductor on the Conway Scenic Railroad.
With the trains packed with out-of-state tourists visiting for the holiday weekend, Graham met few New Hampshire voters during his daylong stint.
The Sullivan family - Barbara, Joe and their three young sons - exchanged pleasantries with Graham, then confided that they live in Massachusetts and generally vote Republican. That is not to say they didn't enjoy bumping into a presidential candidate on their vacation.
"Yesterday we saw a bear, today a presidential candidate!" Barbara Sullivan said.
But many of the New Hampshire voters Graham saw came away impressed, even if they hadn't a clue who he was.
"He's very sincere," said Marie Donahue, who heard Graham speak in Manchester. "We've had Dean here, but there's just something about Graham."
The senator ran into a longtime admirer in Derry, Shirley Richmond of Singer Island, Fla., who was having lunch with friends.
She called Graham a "most impressive gentleman," who is "open-minded but focused, very strong in his commitments."
"Everyone who knows you supports you," she told Graham. "I can't be of use to you here except to spread the good word."