He's Pete Peterson, Candidate for Governor

By STEVE BOUSQUET

St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2001

The ex-POW has a lot going for him, but to win his party's nomination, he'll need more people to know his name.

TALLAHASSEE -- Pete Peterson didn't have a current driver's license when he came home last month after four years in Vietnam. But the former ambassador had a driving ambition to run for governor.

In a few short weeks, Peterson has put together a bare-bones campaign and has made the rounds of most of Florida's urban centers. Yet back home in Tallahassee, he and his wife ate dinner on the floor of their new house while waiting for a furniture truck.  Peterson, 66, a former prisoner of war, congressman and diplomat, is the most important Democrat most Floridians have never heard of. His formal announcement for governor is a few weeks away, giving him time to build an organization and study the issues.  In a campaign of intense national interest that could feature the brother of the sitting president and the country's first female attorney general, Peterson has his own heroic story that invites comparisons to Sen. John McCain and is compelling enough, Peterson supporters hope, to make many voters give him a second look.

Peterson was held as a POW for 61/2 years after his Air Force F-4 fighter jet went down over Hanoi in 1966. He went on to serve three terms in Congress from a conservative North Florida district, and his war experiences made Peterson a logical pick five years ago when President Clinton wanted an ambassador to reopen diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam. Still, he faces enormous roadblocks in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination: a lack of statewide name recognition, no built-in fundraising network and the chance that his leading opponent could be Janet Reno, who appears strongest where he is weakest, in voter-rich South Florida.

But Peterson has been the underdog before. In his first race for Congress in 1990, he was down 20 points in the polls once and did not have enough money to buy a TV ad in the primary. Still, he won the nomination and easily defeated his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Grant of Madison, who had infuriated many Democrats in the sprawling rural district by switching parties a year earlier. Peterson's campaign raised enough money in the closing weeks, much of it from labor unions, to buy a TV ad that ran for the first time during a Miami-Florida State football game. The 60-second ad showed Peterson returning from captivity and highlighted his work as an owner of a small computer business and his ideas about education. The ad's tag line: "Pete Peterson. They won't change him in Washington."

Peterson won 57 to 43 percent.

Having defeated an incumbent congressman with little money and no political experience, Peterson appears unfazed by the obstacles in his path to the governorship.

"It's a case of building an organization that will get us in position to launch a campaign. We're becoming more encouraged every day to do so," Peterson said by phone Friday, riding back from two days of meetings and meals with Jacksonville leaders. They included U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, electrical union workers and two trial lawyers and brothers who are big donors to Florida Democrats: Gary and Steve Pajcic, who lost a race for governor in 1986.

The 5-foot-9-inch Peterson cannot dominate a room by his commanding presence. But his 27 years in the Air Force is evident in his crisp attire and formal demeanor. His wife, Vi Le, who is Vietnamese, has accompanied him on several campaign trips.  The making of Peterson's campaign is quietly under way from inside a small law office near the state Capitol. The checks are starting to trickle in, and a database of early supporters reached 500 the first week.  A cadre of likely supporters includes Democratic veterans from previous campaigns and friends from Peterson's three successful congressional races. They are centrists who think the only way a Florida Democrat can win statewide is to project a moderate philosophy so as to peel off Republican votes -- in Peterson's case, from military veterans.

They include former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus of Orlando, now a World Trade Organization representative in Geneva; Jay Hakes, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham; Allan Katz, a Tallahassee lawyer-lobbyist; lawyer Linda Shelley, a former chief of staff to Gov. Lawton Chiles; Richard Reeves, who worked as a fundraiser and organizer for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's 2000 Senate campaign; deputy state attorney general and former state Rep. George Sheldon; and Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer.

"What I see in Pete is a very decisive, intelligent, analytical person who has the kind of values that I think Florida needs," Meyer said.

Peterson plans to make the need for more state support of public education one theme of his campaign. "I would genuinely be investing major dollars in education," said Peterson, who is an opponent of tax-supported school vouchers in private schools. Peterson will face a unique obstacle in his pursuit of the governorship: the elimination of the runoff or second primary. That historic first gives the big three counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach disproportionate power to virtually anoint the nominee, because that area claims nearly a third of the Democrats' statewide vote total.

Unlike previous moderate Democrats such as Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Graham, Peterson won't have a second chance to win his party's nomination.  "You do it through hard work," Peterson said. "I need to convince the core voters down there that I'm the best candidate for the Democratic nomination."  Graham, who came from second place in a 1978 runoff to win the Democratic nomination for governor, said eliminating the runoff raises the chances of a "less centrist" nominee. He said it's way too soon to say who is helped or hurt by the second primary's elimination.

As a North Florida politician seeking support in more liberal South Florida, Peterson says he knows his past votes will demand explanations. For example, he voted against a 1991 bill to impose a seven-day waiting period for buying handguns. "That was a vote for my constituency," Peterson said. He now favors safety measures to reduce gun violence without making it more difficult for people to own guns. Running statewide in Florida demands an obsession with raising money day after day, week after week. That will be a new experience for Peterson, who raised $300,000 in his first campaign a dozen years ago.

The big-money stakes were made clearer this week when Gov. Jeb Bush lined up commitments of more than $1-million in a single day of strategizing at a hotel in Miami.

When Peterson went to South Florida recently, former U.S. Rep. Larry Smith of Hollywood, now a lawyer and lobbyist, organized a reception for Peterson with a group of officeholders and activists in Broward, the county with more Democratic voters than any other.  Smith, who is not committed to any candidate, said he set up the event as a "courtesy" to a former colleague. Smith says it's an "open question" whether Peterson can raise enough money to pay for the advertising that will boost his name recognition.

"You have to be someone with gigantic name recognition going in to be considered a favorite, unless you can raise a huge amount of money and spend it in the primary," Smith said.

Peterson's first foray into South Florida is producing results.

Walter "Skip" Campbell, a state senator in Broward County and a wealthy trial lawyer with connections to the legal community all over the state, spent 45 minutes with Peterson and came away committed that the ex-POW is his party's best hope. Campbell, who says Reno has "too many negatives" to defeat Bush, followed up with a $500 personal check to Peterson's campaign. "I think he has a Lawton Chiles-type of charisma. It's a low-key, North Florida type of thing," Campbell said. "If he goes, he's my guy. I just don't think Janet Reno can win in the general election."

- Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.