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Hope springs eternal for state Democrats in next year's governor's race

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- It's hard to turn around without bumping into a Democrat who wants to be mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

On the plane from Tampa: Bill McBride, managing partner of the Holland & Knight law firm, who came to the capital last week to chat up the teachers union about a possible campaign.

In the Tallahassee airport: Daryl Jones, a state senator from Miami.

In the Capitol: Lois Frankel, the House minority leader from West Palm Beach.

Across the street in Tallahassee's city hall: Mayor Scott Maddox.

But much of the talk now is about a man who is thousands of miles away. Pete Peterson, the former prisoner of war and the ambassador to Vietnam, is the flavor of the moment.

Peterson's resume is impressive. He is a war hero and a former member of Congress from North Florida who cannot be branded a liberal. He returned to the same land that held him prisoner and is serving his country so well that President Bush wanted him to stick around to continue work on a trade agreement.

That profile intrigues Democratic fundraisers who know little about Peterson. One fundraiser who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Al Gore last year, Philip Levine of Miami, has even talked of flying to Vietnam to meet with Peterson and discuss the governor's race with him.

"He's definitely interested," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who spoke by telephone with Peterson earlier this month after meeting with him in Washington in March.

Nelson and Sen. Bob Graham met with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe earlier this week to talk about the governor's race -- and McAuliffe said he's very high on Peterson.

Democrats are fascinated by Peterson because they need someone who will inspire deep-pocket contributors from outside Florida to write big checks.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, assuming he runs, will have no trouble raising mountains of money with his brother in the White House and a formidable fundraising network of his own. Democrats estimate they will need to raise from $12-million to $20-million to compete.

Following the presidential election battle in Florida, both sides expect Bush's re-election campaign will mobilize supporters across the country. The Florida Democratic Party plans to create a separate account for soft money for the governor's race, an attempt to reassure out-of-state contributors that their money will be spent to directly battle Bush.

Which Democrat would best motivate someone from New York or California to kick in $10,000 or more?

Peterson, a former prisoner of war?

A member of Congress, such as Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa?

A woman such as Frankel, who logged plenty of time on national television last winter during the recount fight?

With the Legislature's session scheduled to end Friday, the early maneuvering for next year's governor's race will pick up. Bush is expected to formally announce his plans within the next month or two. The Democrats will hold a dinner June 23 in Miami Beach featuring Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. That will be a fine opportunity for would-be candidates to strut.

McBride and Frankel sound like they are probably the most eager to enter the race, although both say they have not made a decision.

Last week, McBride acknowledged he is far more serious about it than he was earlier this year and is testing his support. But he also has to decide whether to give up his position at Holland & Knight. The state's largest law firm includes Bush supporters who aren't thrilled about his open flirtation with challenging the popular incumbent.

"Soon," McBride said when asked about his timing on a decision.

Frankel has demonstrated she has the backbone for an uphill battle with Republicans. She led a successful rules fight on the House floor last week that infuriated the Republican leaders. She said she also wants to measure her support after the session.

There are other variables to consider besides raising money.

First, candidates for governor no longer have to choose their running mates when they qualify to appear on the primary ballot. They can wait until after the primary. That means somebody who fails to finish first but demonstrates they have a significant base of support could wind up joining the front-runner's ticket.

Second, the Legislature is poised this week to eliminate the second primary. Now the top two primary finishers face off in a run-off if no one wins more than half the vote. If the second primary is scrapped, a Democrat could win a crowded primary and become the party's nominee with perhaps one-third of the vote.

The bottom line for all pretenders and contenders, though, remains the same as hope springs eternal for beleaguered Democrats.

What are anyone's chances of defeating a popular incumbent whose last name is Bush?

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