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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Should I stay or should I withdraw?

From John Mercurio
CNN Political Editor

Florida Sen. Bob Graham is one of 10 Democrats seeking his party's presidential nomination.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham is one of 10 Democrats seeking his party's presidential nomination.

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LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Bob Graham and Cruz Bustamante emphatically denied Thursday that they're quitting their respective races. So, who do you think will drop out first?

It's anyone's guess, of course, but the Grind picks Graham, who has a longer row to hoe, bigger financial troubles and dimmer chances to eek out a win. And then there's this hint: a Democratic Senate colleague told CNN Thursday that Graham told him he'd quit the 2004 presidential race shortly.

Nonetheless, Graham, who was holed up with top aides in a budget/strategy meeting yesterday in Miami Lakes, said Thursday night that the word "quit" is not on the table. "No, we're not having a press conference, and we don't have any announcement [Friday] about our campaign. Not tomorrow, and not in the future that I can foresee," the senator told the Grind. "That is not subject to change. I don't know who the source is, but he's wrong."

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Graham, whose fund-raising report will show less than $1 million on hand September 30, wouldn't talk with the Grind about '04 staff changes. But aides said the struggling campaign will shed several top aides soon. Spokesman Jamal Simmons resigned yesterday and was already talking with other 2004 Democrats about press jobs. Rumors swirled that campaign manager Paul Johnson was the next to go. (Johnson did not return several calls yesterday).

Serious speculation that Graham would end his presidential bid has circulated since early September, but it was stoked this week by reports that the senator raised a woefully small sum over the last three months -- about $2 million, half of what he anticipated (some sources say much less). His cash-on-hand total will be less than $1 million, aides say.

Bustamante: I'm still in the race

Out in California, prospects looked relatively bright for Bustamante. But that's not saying much.

"Absolutely," Bustamante told CNN when asked if he would stay in the race until Tuesday. "I've got nothing but encouragement from the leadership of my party and from people around the state and nationally to stay in this race because I'm going to win."

Luis Viscaino, Bustamante's spokesman, said rumors that he'll quit are "totally, completely false." He noted that Bustamante will be in Fresno and San Jose for town hall meetings on Friday. Bustamante also is scheduled to fly to three cities on Saturday and will appear on three network talk shows Sunday.

"We wouldn't be wasting our time out there if we were going to drop out," Viscaino said.

Wasting our time, Luis? We wonder how the good people of Fresno would feel about that.

Sounds like some pretty airtight denials, but the Grind remembers similar denials coming from Republicans Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth just 24 hours before each fell on his sword in the California recall.

One thing is for sure -- Bustamante shouldn't count on any last-minute help from Davis, who basically declared on Thursday that his lieutenant's campaign is toast.

"One thing that has become clear over the last several days is that we no longer have 135 choices to make," Davis said, who will campaign with Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack on Friday in Long Beach. "It's really one choice likely to emerge from question number two, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that leaves the voters with a clear choice. They can retain Gray Davis as governor, or they can elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crew from Pete Wilson to run the governor's office."

Meanwhile, a regularly scheduled gubernatorial election is taking place in the South. It's an odd election, though, one of those open-ballot Saturday primaries only Louisiana could cook up.

A new poll shows that Republican Bobby Jindal is poised to claim the top spot in the runoff. Two Democrats, state Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, are vying for the second spot on the runoff ballot.

The Democrat who pulls ahead is likely the one who draws the most black voters to the polls. On that score, Ieyoub is better positioned than Blanco; He has spent heavily on increasing turnout in black precincts, primarily in the Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

There's plenty of other political happenings this weekend, including the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting in Washington. The two-day meeting will feature appearances by all 10 Democratic presidential candidates -- including, we're told, Bob Graham, whose campaign was busy yesterday booking his weekend plane ticket to Washington. Hmmmmm.

And last, but certainly not least -- Al Sharpton turns 49 Friday. The outspoken Libra was celebrating at Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn. You've got to hand it to Sharpton, he hasn't raised half as much money as Graham, nor has he broken single digits in national polls. But you don't hear anyone talking about him dropping out, do you?

Happy birthday, Rev. Al!

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