I sat down to write this column and make a credible case for Bob Graham. That was 30 minutes ago. I’m having trouble. On paper, Bob Graham looks like a powerful contender. He’s been very successful in a bigger and politically tougher state than any of his competitors. He’s been a Governor and Governors get nominated. His Senate expertise is foreign relations, quite handy at a time when int’l conflict is a huge issue. He has a friendly, avuncular style and a savvy campaign staff.. So what’s wrong? Why does the national media consciousness already treat Bob Graham as an also-ran? I saw a clue at the SC debate. Graham’s signature sound bite: “I come from the electable wing of the Democratic party.” The venerable “electable” pitch, once again creaking to life.

Electability ; that’s code for “listen up voters, I’m the candidate you have to vote for even though you really want to vote for somebody else.” While the electable pitch works for some finance people and the odd party leader, it is a pure castor oil to everyone else; you may not like the taste but it is good for you. We don’t sell very much castor oil in America. Electability is a cerebral argument made by candidates who don’t have an emotional connection with primary voters, who are mostly ideologues and romantics. It may be true, but it falls on deaf ears since the idea that their candidate is unelectable because he or she agrees with them on solar powered bubble cars or a new national tax on beer is nonsensical to them. Instead, they want a candidate who will finally “tell it like it IS.” Dean people think Dean is plenty electable, on Iraq and everything else. When a candidate starts talking mostly about electability, one foot is already in the grave.

Graham has tried to expand his message to criticism of the President’s foreign policy and his performance on homeland security. We’ll see if that starts to work. Graham may find his moment after a security failure of some kind, though it is hard to be a gloating-“I told you so”-guy after a tragic incident. My guess is Graham will bet heavy on Iowa as his breakthrough state. His trademark workdays may generate some affection there. (But one gimmick is plenty; enough with the sponsoring a NASCAR car is our secret campaign wunder-weapon shtick; that moldy stuff was already a stretch with Edwards.) Perhaps Graham will become the Paul Simon of 2004 and achieve a surprising 2nd or 3rd place in the Iowa caucus. If so, he’ll be in the race, but his path won’t get much easier. If Graham starts to look like a true contender, he’ll face a first rate steam cleaning from the gentle examiners of the national media concerning his quirky habit of keeping an extremely, um, complete daily diary. How his campaign handles a breathless “Is Graham Strange?” spasm from the press and how voters react to it will be a defining moment in Graham’s career.

The great irony of Graham’s candidacy returns us to electability. The one arena where electability works is in the micro-politics of picking a Vice President. Months ago, Graham looked near unbeatable in that race with his long experience and his bankable popularity in critical Florida. Having already come very close to being chosen VP twice, Graham is probably tired of near misses. But now, by running for President he’s put a lot on the line. He might well have been a stronger candidate for Veep had he stayed safely on the sidelines, instead of entering the unforgiving expectations casino of Presidential politics where there are clear winners and losers and the chance to disappoint and damage one’s self is far greater than the chance to win.