Bob Graham's decision not to seek re-election sets up an intensely competitive U.S. Senate race and improves the Republican Party's chances of reclaiming the seat next year.
Like a lid lifted off a pot of boiling water, Graham's exit will unleash months of pent-up political ambition among Democrats. They were forced to wait while Graham made his decision. Republicans, meanwhile, will seek an open seat without Graham and his decades of crossover support standing in their way in a race that the White House is keenly interested in because of Florida's importance in presidential politics.
"It's going to be one of the most competitive races in the country," said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist who heads President Bush's re-election campaign in the Southeast. "I like our chances."
Republicans lost the seat in 1986 when Graham defeated incumbent Paula Hawkins. The GOP claimed Florida's other Senate seat two years later, when Connie Mack edged Democrat Buddy MacKay. Democrats then seized back the seat in 2000 when Bill Nelson beat Bill McCollum.
The absence of a front-runner in either party, the lack of a runoff primary and importance of Florida's 27 electoral votes in a presidential election suggest a spirited and expensive campaign ahead. The candidates could spend up to $20-million in the primary phase alone.
The Democratic strategy is to label the Republicans as right-wing extremists who can't appeal to mainstream Florida voters in a general election. Democrats are using the House speaker, Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, as the face of the GOP field.
"I think this pandering by Johnnie Byrd to the religious right recently has turned off a lot of people, even in our conservative Jacksonville," said Clyde Collins, chairman of the Duval County Democratic Party. "Those guys are so far to the right."
But Republican Senate candidates are expected to label many of the Democratic candidates as liberals who are out of step with most voters. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., chairman of National Republican Senatorial Committee, called the Florida Republican candidates "common sense conservatives."
Besides Byrd, the Republican field also includes McCollum, a former 20-year member of Congress who lost a bid for Senate to Nelson in 2000; the state's first Republican House speaker in 122 years, Dan Webster, now a state senator; conservative legal activist Larry Klayman of Miami; and Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.
Republican U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris of Sarasota has often been mentioned as a contender but has said a Senate race was not on her "radar screen." She said Graham's retirement has created "a blip on my radar screen, but I cannot yet say that my decision has changed."
The Democrats include former state Education Commissioner and USF president Betty Castor, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Lauderhill and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar, one of Florida's most popular black politicians, said he's exploring entering the race and will decide "very soon."
Deutsch and Penelas hail from the state's two biggest Democratic counties, and through June had raised more than $4-million combined while clashing bitterly.
The sniping between the two began several months ago when Deutsch called Penelas a "pathological liar" for saying he helped Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
Deutsch has accused Penelas of coercing illegal campaign donations from a health care company, and filed a complaint against Penelas with the Federal Election Commission.
The Penelas campaign has called those allegations "bogus." But Deutsch, an aggressive campaigner and Yale-educated lawyer who got into politics as a 25-year-old legislator, has succeeded in putting Penelas on the defensive.
Deutsch avoided campaign talk Monday out of respect for Graham. He plans a statewide announcement tour on Monday.
In a conference call with reporters, Penelas acknowledged making several mistakes in his seven years as chief executive of Florida's largest county. But he attempted to cast it as an asset, not a liability.
"I've made my share of mistakes and I've grown from them," Penelas said, without enumerating them. "Those experiences will alow me to be a better United States senator."
Penelas, 41, was 4 years old when Graham began his long, unbroken period of service as a state House member from Miami Lakes in 1966.
The mayor, a Cuban-American, said he can reach out to voters in two languages and pull Hispanic Republican votes. But he has apologized for a past snub of South African leader Nelson Mandela and has criticized his own handling of the Elian Gonzalez case.
With the Deutsch-Penelas feud certain to escalate, the Senate primary may prove to be the toughest test yet of Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox's ability to lead. Maddox has urged Democrats to avoid personal attacks to avoid repeating the past, when the nominee was too badly bruised to win the general election.
"We'll have a good, healthy primary, and we'll come out with the best candidate," Maddox said. "Today's a new day. What ever happened in the past is past."
"The Republicans run better campaigns than Democrats do. They've got better organizations, they've got more money, and they've got a better message," said Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Bishop said the Democrats' strongest candidate is Castor, because she is a centrist from Central Florida, a woman, and has more credibility on education as a former state university president and education commissioner. But Castor, 62, has not been on a Florida ballot since 1990.
_ Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Michael Sandler contributed to this report.
Major U.S. Senate candidates
Johnnie Byrd, 52, of Plant City. Lawyer, speaker of the Florida House, legislator since 1996. Campaign cash: $847,000.
Larry Klayman, 52, of Miami. Lawyer in Washington, D.C., owns a condo in Miami, founded Judicial Watch, a self-styled court watchdog. Campaign cash: $72,000.
Bill McCollum, 59, a lawyer and member of Congress from 1980-2000, representing a suburban Orlando district. He was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2000. Campaign cash: $1.2-million.
Barbara Sheen Todd, 61, Pinellas County commissioner, first elected in 1984. Running mate for Jim Smith, unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in 1994. Campaign cash: none.
Daniel Webster, 54, of Winter Garden. State senator since 1998, member of state House 1980-1998, first Republican House speaker in 122 years (1996-1998). Campaign cash: $181,000.
Betty Castor 62, of Tampa. Former president of the University of South Florida, former Florida commissioner of education and former state senator. Campaign cash: $569,000.
Peter Deutsch, 46, of Pembroke Pines. A six-term congressman, a New York native and Yale Law School graduate, elected to the state Legislature at age 25. Campaign cash: $3.5-million.
Alex Penelas, 41, of Miami. A Cuban-American in his second term as mayor of Miami-Dade County. Campaign cash: $1.9-million.
Source: Federal Election Commission. Deutsch's total includes $2.9-million in his U.S. House campaign account. Totals as of Sept. 30.