Florida Democrats Waiting on Reno, Peterson

While Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to waltz to his party's gubernatorial nomination, the dance is just starting on the Democratic side.

"That's where all the excitement is going to be for quite a while," Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said Thursday.

Two state legislators and a Tampa attorney have filed papers, formalizing their intentions, while another three or four hopefuls are spending the summer handicapping their chances. That group includes former Attorney General Janet Reno and former Ambassador to Vietnam and one-time U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson.

House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Bill McBride, who has taken a leave of absence from his law firm, are in.

"I think it has to be sort of a free-for-all for a while," said Buddy Shorstein, longtime political adviser to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the de facto leader of Florida Democrats, who has already met with all of the gubernatorial wannabes.

"I think what he (Graham) is saying, is let these folks roll around some and get out in the field and see what happens," Shorstein said Thursday.

Graham has been vocal in his opposition to Bush's education changes in Florida and Democrats would like nothing better than knocking off President Bush's younger brother in his re-election bid.

Reno said she wants to talk with Peterson before finalizing her decision.

"My belief is if Janet Reno gets into the race that she's going to be the person to beat," former state Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead said.

Reno would be a harder sell against Bush, an energetic Republican who has enjoyed a lofty favorable rating with voters during his first three years in office.

Reno's days as the head of the Justice Department were marked by scandals in the FBI, the 1993 Waco siege, and the Elian Gonzalez saga in South Florida.

Reno, 62, suffers noticeably from Parkinson's, a degenerative disease characterized by tremors.

"For the average voter in most gubernatorial elections, the personal characteristics of the governor are very important to them," Jewett said. "Much like the president, when you talk about the governor it's a symbolic person to most people. There is sort of a personal attachment."

Although Florida's two Democratic U.S. senators, Graham and Bill Nelson, persuaded Peterson to consider the race, they have moved into a neutral corner for the time being.

"All of these people are good personal friends of ours," Nelson said Thursday. "We're not taking sides, but we clearly have an interest in keeping them from killing off each other."

Bush, meanwhile, has only token opposition. Nancy Ivers of Tallahassee and perennial candidate Andy Martin of West Palm Beach have listed themselves with the Secretary of State as Republican candidates.

Without a runoff for the first time in more than 70 years, someone could win the Democratic primary in September 2002 with less than 30 percent of the vote, especially if the three South Florida hopefuls carve up the heavy Democratic vote in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Frankel comes from West Palm Beach, while Jones and Reno are from Miami. McBride, presumably, would run strong in his home area while Peterson would be a natural in his Panhandle base, where he once represented the 2nd District in Congress.

A former Air Force pilot and POW during the Vietnam War, Peterson, who would be 67 on Election Day, has a compelling story to tell. He returned Wednesday from a four-year tour as ambassador to Vietnam and is only beginning to assess the political landscape.

"Of the five, Peterson is the most attractive candidate who has the best chance of winning as a Democrat," Jewett said. "They'd have to spend a lot of money to get his story out."

State Party Chairman Bob Poe was heading Friday for Turkey and France and a couple weeks relaxation before the race really heats up.

"It's going to be clearer very soon here who has what," he said.