Sen. Bob Graham of Florida on Thursday joined the growing field of Democratic hopefuls seeking the White House, starting his campaign even as he continues to mend from recent heart surgery.
The 66-year-old Graham, who is serving his third term in the Senate after eight years as Florida governor, filed two sets of papers establishing his campaign fund-raising committee, one in the state capital of Tallahassee and the other in Washington. He issued a brief statement: "I intend to be the Democratic nominee for president. I am the best prepared to lead and the most able to win."
Graham is expected to start actively campaigning sometime in the next few weeks, pending doctors' approval, and plans a formal campaign kickoff in April.
With his entry, the Democratic field grew to nine hopefuls, making it the biggest roster of presidential contestants the party has put forth in more than a generation.
Among Graham's strengths as a candidate is that Florida is one of the nation's major sources of campaign cash and it is a key electoral college prize. Disadvantages include Graham's relatively late start and questions about his health arising from his Jan. 31 heart surgery.
Also, Graham lacks the close-neighbor status other candidates will enjoy in three states that start the presidential voting in January -- Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt has it in Iowa, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry in New Hampshire and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina.
"I have a hard time seeing Graham breaking through in any of those [kickoff] states," said independent political analyst Charles Cook. "To get anywhere, a candidate will need some momentum from one of those three."
Florida's primary is not until March 2004, by which time the heavily frontloaded presidential contest could very well be decided.
A Florida native, Graham began his political career by winning election to the state Legislature in 1966. He served two terms as a highly popular governor, establishing a campaign pattern in 1978 that he has kept up since: Once a month, he works a day in a different job, doing everything from bagging groceries to plucking chickens.
Elected to the Senate in 1986, Graham has established a moderate voting record, taking a tough stance on crime -- he oversaw 16 executions as Florida governor -- strongly backing the U.S. embargo on Cuba and supporting an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. He supported the Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991, but opposed the resolution last fall authorizing renewed military action against Iraq because he said it would divert resources from the international war on terrorism and undermine domestic security needs.
Graham had intended to launch his candidacy earlier this month but was sidetracked by heart surgery. He initially said the procedure was for repair of a heart valve, but last week revealed the operation was more extensive, involving a double bypass to remove blockage in his arteries and to close a pinpoint hole between the upper chambers of his heart. "He is doing very well, getting stronger every day," said Paul Anderson, a Graham spokesman.
But Susan MacManus, who teaches political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Graham's health "is something people are going to watch closely. A heart problem is different at the age of 66, and people will be more aware of that in these times of stress."
Associated Press contributed to this report.