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Despite 12 years in U.S. Senate, he's still "Gov. Graham' to many

One in an occasional series following candidates for statewide office

The buffet table is loaded with fried catfish, cole slaw and sweet tea, a feast to raise money for the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

The political elite of this Panhandle town _ peanut farmers, country lawyers and a couple of house painters _ line up to say hello to Graham as he passes out the paper plates.

It takes just a few minutes until someone makes the Graham Mistake.

"Good to see you, governor," says Herman Laramore, a public defender in Marianna.

Never mind that Graham hasn't been governor since 1986, or that he has served four years longer in the Senate than he did in the governor's mansion. To many Floridians, he is still Gov. Graham, the centrist Democrat who managed to please virtually everyone.

The fond memories of his gubernatorial days make him a powerful force in Florida politics. No matter where he goes in the state, people still thank him for things he did more than a decade ago. Laramore praises him for being "a friend of the peanut farmer." Business leaders in Tallahassee still praise his work in the 1980s for the banking and gas pipeline industries.

The constant talk of the Graham glory days also reveals his biggest weakness. Despite 12 years in the U.S. Senate, many supporters cannot name a single big accomplishment.

Laramore says he still refers to Graham by the old title because "that's how we know him. He understands our needs, having served in Tallahassee for eight years." Since Graham became senator, "we don't see him that much," Laramore says.

But Graham, who will formally announce his campaign today in Tampa, says he has accomplished a lot in the Senate. He just doesn't go running to the microphones every time he has a new idea.

Graham's likely opponent, state Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, will be trying to take advantage of Graham's low-key reputation in the Senate and targeting the 3-million new Floridians who weren't in the state when Graham was governor.

Graham frequently is upstaged by colleagues who hold more news conferences and are quoted more often in national newspapers. He says he is more interested in being an effective legislator than in getting quoted in the New York Times or appearing on Meet the Press.

He sees himself as a consensus-builder who brings Democrats and Republicans together. Many of his amendments on taxes, the environment and veterans' benefits have been included in other senators' bills. He doesn't mind if someone else gets credit.

"What counts is not your name on the legislation but that it actually becomes reality," Graham says.

He gets lots of publicity for his trademark "work days," where he tries someone else's job for a day, but deep down, Graham is a bookish man who is uncomfortable boasting about accomplishments. His careful, plodding style means he misses opportunities to be a spokesman on his pet issues.

Take his anti-tobacco bill, for example.

Graham and Sens. John Chafee, R-R.I., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, spent weeks crafting a bipartisan bill so it would satisfy the demands of public health groups and still get support from Senate Republicans. In the meantime, they got bypassed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who quickly assembled a bill that became the main tobacco proposal in Congress. It has made McCain the main spokesman on tobacco.

Even Graham's fellow Democrats in the Clinton administration seem to have forgotten him. At least two have publicly called Graham's proposal "the Chafee-Harkin bill."

So what has Graham done in 12 years?

He says his biggest accomplishments are expanding Everglades National Park, increasing highway and veterans spending in Florida, preserving Medicare and protecting Florida's coast from oil drilling. Other Graham bills led to tougher laws on Medicare fraud and more drug-fighting money for the Interstate 4 corridor.

He is proud to be a moderate. He frequently co-sponsors bills with Republicans because it is easier to get them passed in a GOP-controlled Senate. Graham amendments for school construction and prepaid tuition programs were included in the Republican education bill that passed Thursday.

Republicans say he is tenacious. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., said last week that Graham was "consistent and persistent" about pushing the school construction amendment.

Still, Graham concedes he liked being governor more than senator.

"They're both good jobs," he says. "If God told me I could do one but not both, I would pick governor."

As governor, he could actually govern. "You are making news every day _ not artificial news. You're doing things _ you sign a death warrant, you veto a bill. The nature of the Senate doesn't lend itself to that. When you're doing something, you are doing it as one of 100."

But the people in baseball caps and jeans at the Marianna fund-raiser don't mind if Graham has been quiet in Washington. They say he has been a loyal friend for more than two decades and they want to keep him in office.

"He was the greatest thing that ever happened to Florida," says Daun Crews, a retired clerk of the court. "He's one of those guys that can get things done and everybody feels good about it."

Those good feelings translate into big campaign money. Graham has $3.4-million in the bank and continues to hold fund-raising events around the country. The Marianna fish fry raised only $1,958, but the 110 people at the event were testament to the strength of his support.

Many supporters wanted Graham to run for governor this year, but he chose to seek re-election to the Senate. His reasoning: He had earned a coveted position on the Finance Committee and thought he could do a lot for Florida. Also, he decided it would be wrong to try to relive his glory days in Tallahassee.

"In life, there is always a temptation to go back to a place where you had good experiences," he says. "But it's never the same the second time around."

Still, the fond memories linger.

The day after the Marianna fund-raiser, Graham is in the governor's office to hold a news conference about the Internal Revenue Service. As he ducks into the men's room before the event, aide Jim Baxley waits outside.

When someone in the lieutenant governor's office asks Baxley what he is doing, he replies, "I'm waiting for Governor Graham."

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham

Democratic candidate for re-election

Age: 61

Home: Miami Lakes

Family: Married to Adele Khoury, four children

Occupation: U.S. senator, 1987-present

Previous elected offices: State House of Representatives 1966-70; State Senate 1970-78; Governor 1978-86

Political trademark: "Work days," when he takes someone else's occupation for a day

Neckwear: 10 identical ties with little images of Florida on them