Peterson files, keeps options open.

Democrat Pete Peterson files fundraising papers to cover his bases as he further explores a run for governor. By STEVE BOUSQUET St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Democrat Pete Peterson, a former POW in Vietnam who served as America's first postwar ambassador there, filed papers to run for governor Tuesday on the eve of his initial campaign-style visit to South Florida.

Peterson came home last week after four years as America's envoy to Vietnam during which he helped craft a historic trade agreement between the two countries. He and his wife, Vi Le, are living in a hotel while they shop for a house, and pressure has been mounting on him to reintroduce himself to voters by hitting the campaign trail. Peterson, 66, represented a conservative Panhandle district in Congress from 1990 to 1996, but he remains largely unknown in the state's urban strongholds. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said "the incredible story" of Peterson's capture and imprisonment for 61/2 years in Vietnam and his return as America's first ambassador there since the war will gain him quick credibility.

The growing prospect of his candidacy sets up a possible regional clash in the Florida Democratic Party that could pit Peterson, a conservative from small-town Marianna, against Janet Reno, a former U.S. attorney general and state attorney from Miami-Dade.

Reno has the star power Peterson lacks, but some Democrats fear that she would be dogged by past controversies she faced in Washington, from Waco to Elian Gonzalez, making her the center of the campaign instead of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's record. Peterson appointed Beth Hodges, a former congressional aide, as his treasurer. He said his interpretation of state election law is that he cannot accept money or incur expenses without first opening a campaign account.

"Florida just doesn't have a provision for exploratory campaigns," Peterson said. "So in order to make sure that we don't come close to looking like we were breaking the law, I wanted to be sure we had everything filed. I noted on the form that this is exploratory, and that's exactly what it is. It's not an announcement in any way." Reno has said she will decide in about a month whether to seek the nomination. She has kept up a busy schedule of campaign appearances all over the state and said that she sees nothing in Florida law that requires a non-candidate to file fundraising papers.

"I haven't determined to run, and I'm trying to ask people what I should do," Reno said. "I don't think that's covered. I'm very sincere in that effort, and I ought to be able to do that and make an informed decision."

The law turns on the definition of a candidate as, "any person who receives contributions or makes expenditures ... with a view to bring about his or her nomination or election to, or retention in, public office." Peterson plans to visit Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami today in a hastily arranged political mission to the state's most vital Democratic areas. Not only is the so-called Gold Coast home to nearly one-third of Florida's Democrats, but its influence will be greater than ever in 2002 because the Legislature voted to abolish the runoff or second primary. That means whoever gets the most votes in the first primary is assured of winning the Democratic nomination. South Florida, moreover, is also the area where Reno is best known and where she has been keeping up a busy schedule of campaign-style appearances at churches, legal groups and clubs of Democratic retirees.

Peterson offered few details about the trip to South Florida and said he was not sure who would be accompanying him. "I am going very casually," Peterson said. "There are no formal speaking engagements. It's just an introduction to South Florida." Peterson thus becomes the most prominent Democrat to set up a fundraising operation, a step that will be seen as a signal that he has decided to run. Reno and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa are possible candidates who have not filed papers. Other Democrats who have opened fundraising accounts include state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride. Bush will try to become the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction to serve two consecutive terms.