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GOP ready to challenge Graham

Republicans vying to replace Bob Graham in the U.S. Senate appeared undaunted Saturday that they might be up against Florida's most popular Democrat.

Graham, who dropped his bid for president a month ago, is to announce his plans Monday, but GOP Senate contenders at a candidate forum Saturday sounded as though they already are running against him.

"Who do you trust to make sure that our federal courts reflect the great diversity of our state and our nation," state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd asked more than 300 Republicans gathered for a Florida Federation of Republican Women Conference. "Hillary Clinton? Bob Graham? Teddy Kennedy? Or President Bush and the Republican U.S. senator from the state of Florida: Johnnie Byrd?"

"Bob Graham is not the Bob Graham that I knew or you knew," said former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, arguing that Graham severely hurt himself by aggressively attacking George W. Bush while running for president. "Next November, the voters of Florida, if Bob Graham runs for re-election, will reject Bob Graham, and they should."

If the party activists gathered at the Hilton St. Petersburg are any indication, McCollum is the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. Federation members held a straw poll in which he received 173 votes; Byrd, 24; Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, 21; state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, 5; Gwendolyn McClellen, 2; and Larry Klayman, 1. Webster and Klayman did not attend the event.

The forum provided a high-profile debut for Todd, who has filed papers to raise money but still is measuring her prospects.

"We're going to have to have appeal across both party lines if we want this seat," said Todd, who would be a moderate candidate in a field dominated by staunch conservatives.

The candidates present responded to questions with broad answers that showed few differences between them, other than McCollum offering the most specifics. They want to cut taxes, fight for Bush's judicial appointments, crack down on illegal aliens and repeal the McCain-Feingold law banning unlimited donations to national parties. (Todd later said she might not support the repeal, as she implied to the audience.)

McClellan, a long-shot candidate from Sarasota, drew groans when she said she supported a universal health care plan for the country. She also suggested Graham will be tough to beat.

"Sen. Graham has served Florida with love in his heart," she said, as harrumphs erupted in the ballroom. "He stood up and fought for principles he believed in when no one else was willing to."