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    Democrats query Peterson as governor hopeful

    U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson say Pete Peterson would be a strong candidate.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, is being seriously courted by the state's top Democrats as they search for a candidate for governor.

    Peterson, 65, a longtime resident of the small Florida Panhandle town of Marianna, is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

    Peterson is viewed by some Democrats as a man with a moderate voting record and credentials similar to those of U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona who also was a prisoner of war. Peterson left Congress in 1997 and became this country's first post-war ambassador to Vietnam that same year. On Wednesday night, Florida's two U.S. senators, Democrats Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, took Peterson to dinner in Washington to try to convince him he should make the run for governor.

    They dined at Two Quail, a Capitol Hill restaurant that describes itself as "Washington, D.C.'s most romantic restaurant."

    "Pete has this incredibly powerful story to tell," Nelson said Friday. "He would be an exceptionally attractive candidate."

    Peterson could not be reached for comment Friday. He was in Tallahassee on Friday and planned to meet today with Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte to discuss the university's Vietnam program. D'Alemberte said Friday that he requested the meeting and was unaware that others were trying to get Peterson to run.

    "I would be shocked if he did decide to run," D'Alemberte said. "But I've been shocked before."

    Nelson and Graham said they also have met with U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus of Orlando and Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox in an effort to recruit Democrats to run for the job. They also plan to talk with state Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

    Leading Democrats think the presidential election controversy of last year and the anger of black Floridians at Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to eliminate affirmative action programs in state government have seriously weakened the governor.

    But first they must find a candidate capable of scoring points with Floridians who have consistently indicated they approve of Bush.

    Bush says he won't announce his own plans until sometime in June, but most observers think he will seek reelection.

    Peterson, a native of Omaha, Neb., got his bachelor's degree from the University of Tampa in 1976. In 1998 he married his second wife, Vi Le, a Saigon native.

    Nelson and Graham said Peterson was interested but didn't say when he might make a decision.

    "None of them are saying they are going to run yet," Nelson said of the Democrats who are considering the race. "But they are all expressing interest."

    Graham and Nelson said they think whoever runs needs to make a decision in the next few months.

    Graham returned a call from Gateway Golf Course in Fort Myers, where he was spending a weekend attending spring training games and visiting with old friends from his days at the University of Florida.

    "Pete hasn't made a decision, but he is thinking about his future," Graham said. Although all ambassadors submit resignations when a new president is elected, President George W. Bush has extended Peterson's term in office so he can help negotiate an agreement between Vietnam and the United States.

    Would the president be in a position to keep Peterson in Vietnam and off the campaign trail?

    "Are you suggesting that diplomatic decisions are made for political purposes?" Graham asked. "Cynical reporters might think that."

    Then Graham said, "Do you mind if I put the phone down for a minute, it's my turn to hit the ball."

    A minute later, he returned and said "Just hit a good one," and continued answering questions.

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    From the Times state desk