Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election to the Senate, and it was probably the best decision -- for Edwards and, more importantly, for the Democratic Party. Even if Edwards had decided to campaign for a second term, his seat would have been a toss-up. At least now the party can nominate someone who will be able to focus on keeping one of North Carolina's seats in the Democratic column.
But if opting against re-election was the right call for Edwards, it would be the wrong call for another presidential contender who finds himself trailing badly in national polls: Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). Graham has yet to announce whether he will campaign for another term in Florida. Democrats everywhere should be hoping he does.
Graham's decision is important because he is a political institution in Florida, an otherwise decidedly centrist state. Should he drop out of the Senate race, his seat would clearly become up for grabs. But because Graham's personal popularity in Florida transcends party lines, he would almost certainly win if he seeks re-election.
Republicans already have the numerical advantage in next year's Senate elections, with 15 seats to defend compared with the Democrats' 19. A Graham decision not to run would put another seat in play, and one that otherwise would have been safe.
If Graham stood a good chance of winning the Oval Office, I'd tell him to go for it. At this point, however, he doesn't. The race is now a fight between former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and perhaps another, yet-to-be-determined candidate. In a recent Zogby poll of New Hampshire voters, Graham finished with 1 percent -- behind former Gen. Wesley Clark, who has yet to even say whether he's running.
Graham talks a lot about his expertise and experience on intelligence issues, and while he's no longer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he can still have a powerful impact on the Senate debate. Graham should take a cue here from Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who opted not to run for the White House so he could focus on his role as a senator.
I wish Graham the best of luck. If his presidential campaign suddenly catches fire with voters, he should certainly go full-speed ahead in pursuit of the White House. But I hope he will put his party ahead of personal ambitions by dropping out of the presidential campaign to focus on his Senate run -- or, at the very least, leaving that option open for the seemingly inevitable time when his presidential bid grounds to a halt.
Graham can do so much more for the Democratic Party by focusing on a race he is likely to win. With control of the Senate so close, every seat counts. If the Democrats control the Senate in 2005, they'll be able to push along the priorities of a Democratic president or stymie the Bush administration's agenda. The last two years have shown just how much it matters which party controls the Senate. That's why we need Bob Graham to be there.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.