"This administration has ignored homeland security in all but name while it focused all its energy on Iraq," the Florida senator told more than 500 supporters gathered in sweltering heat on his home town's Main Street.
Graham, who served eight years as Florida governor before being elected to the Senate 16 years ago, cast himself as the Democrats' most experienced and electable presidential candidate. This state, with 27 electoral votes, determined the last presidential election after an agonizing recount — and will likely be a battleground again in 2004.
Introduced by his wife, Adele, as "simply the best" presidential candidate, Graham slipped momentarily on the stage steps before standing beneath a live oak tree and a sign that read, "Proven leadership working for America" and pledging to "bring us back together as one America."
Just up Main Street, the storefront of a lingerie store, with help from a hand-painted sign, was the site of a whimsical campaign message: "Victoria's Secret" is that "Bob's gonna win," the sign read.
The 66-year-old lawmaker must overcome several obstacles, including a relatively late start in the campaign, low name recognition outside Florida and questions about his health. Graham underwent major heart surgery in January and began putting his campaign together in late February.
He staged a campaign kickoff Tuesday in hopes of drawing attention and money to his fledgling presidential bid.
As the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham intends to distinguish himself from the nine-candidate field by confronting Mr. Bush on the White House's most potent political issue — the war on terrorism. At the same time, Graham is joining the Democratic chorus in criticism of Bush's tax-cutting economic plans.
"He has shown no sign of knowing how to lead us back to economic prosperity," Graham said of Mr. Bush. "We need a president who will bring America back."
Graham accused the president of squandering budget surpluses created during the Democratic Clinton administration. "It is painfully obvious this president has no economic policy other than granting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," he said.
The senator wants to suspend Bush tax cuts set to take effect in coming years and replace the package with his own plan: Eliminate the first $10,000 in payroll taxes, saving the average Americans $765 a year for two years, campaign officials said.
That would reduce revenues to the Social Security and Medicare programs, but Graham would replace it by closing offshore corporate tax breaks and other loopholes, officials said. He will outline his plans Thursday in Washington before heading to New Hampshire, where he will replicate his popular Florida "workdays" program by serving as a teacher for a day.
Graham arguably has the most well-rounded resume in the Democratic field. First elected to the state legislature in 1966, he has never lost an election and has frequently been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.
Graham hopes history is on his side. No Democrat from the north has won the White House since 1960. That is also the last time anyone from either party was elected without having been a governor or vice president.
Howard Dean of Vermont is the only other former governor in the Democratic field. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is the only other southerner. Graham's strategists plan to court conservative, rural voters — so-called NASCAR Democrats who normally don't vote in large numbers.
Graham, who voted for the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution sought by Mr. Bush's father, opposed the younger Mr. Bush's push for war on the grounds that it would distract from the global campaign against terrorism.
"Instead of pursuing the most imminent and real threats to our future — international terrorists — this Bush administration chose to settle old scores," he said.
Graham's advisers are sensitive to criticism that their candidate lacks charisma, and argue that voters favor seriousness over style in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A public official for 37 years, Graham has been married for 44 years and is the father of four children, grandfather of 10.
His habit of keeping detailed daily logs of his personal and political activities has been called quirky, and damaged his prospects of becoming Al Gore's running mate in 2000.
Florida offers Graham a solid base of political and financial support. He played up his native son status by staging his formal announcement on Main Street in the community that his family developed from their expansive dairy farm.
Gov. Jeb Bush said he was confident the president would beat Graham or any other Democrat in Florida.
"He would be formidable in this state but I believe my brother can beat him — can whip them all," the governor said.