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Southerland may be a target for Dems, but Graham not taking aim just yet

Gwen Graham, the daughter of former U.S. Senator and governor Bob Graham, is on something of a roll.

She announced in April that she was running for the 2nd Congressional District and has since raised $375,000 in her first quarter (her Republican opponent, Steve Southerland, raised $461,000). The district is considered the the best chance Florida Democrats have of picking up a seat in 2014.

On Tuesday, she announced that she had snared the endorsement of the National Education Association based on a recommendation by the Florida Education Association -- the earliest either has weighed in on a U.S. Congressional race. That will afford her a pool of about 3,000 union members in 14 counties to volunteer for her campaign.

“This endorsement means so much to me,” said Graham, who works in the Leon County School district as chief of labor relations. “I started this race running hard on April 2. I asked the FEA early on. My father’s first endorsement when he ran for governor were the teachers. This is from my heart. My support of teachers is in my heart. They felt my passion.”

But at Tuesday’s news conference, the 50-year-old shied away from confronting her opponent with the same temerity that her party has.

Last month, Southerland became a rallying cry for Democrats after he proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would force food stamp recipients to meet federal work requirements. When Democrats walked away from the bill, they blamed it on Southerland’s amendment.

Asked about it on Tuesday, Graham turned to a supporter and let her speak. After the supporter called the food stamp amendment “disgusting,” Graham started speaking again, adding “We’re getting a little off topic here.”

Her reticence to mix it up with Southerland, especially so early, might be prudent.

Graham is trying to win a district that, despite the numbers, leans hard right. Its official tally actually has Democrats way up in the number of registered voters -- 234,000 to 158,000 Republicans -- but many of those Democrats are conservative, which helps explain why the district backed Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 52 percent to 47 percent margin. Also keep in mind that Southerland beat back a challenge last year from former state Sen. Al Lawson.

The last thing Graham would want in running for a district like this is to be portrayed as a radical liberal. So she answers questions like “Would she support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker?” this way:

“I don’t want to take a position in advance of actually knowing who the leadership will be at the time.”

Graham said she wants to be viewed as a moderate who would help end the partisanship that divides Washington.

“My first step will be to reach across the aisle and build friendships with people and start building relationships,” she said. “I’m going to represent all of the people in the second district. When I’m up there and I’m asked to take a vote, I’m going to think about not what my party line is, but I’m going to think about what the people behind me need. That’s what we lost in Washington. When my dad was in the Congress, there was a bipartisan nature. He and Connie Mack worked hand-in-hand.”

The toughest criticism she had for Southerland was reserved for his partisanship.

“He’s definitely an extremist,” she said.

But to prove it to the 2nd Congressional District voters, Graham will have to come across as a "reasonable Democrat" who is probably a bit to the right of her party.