Space Cowboy

Maybe Sen. Bill Nelson spent too much time in space. After all, scientists believe that prolonged exposure to zero gravity can disturb a person's cognitive abilities. That's pretty much the only explanation I can find for Nelson's comments last month regarding Florida's governor's race.

Holding court in his office, the state's junior senator regaled reporters with his opinions, though "opinions" may be the wrong word. In Nelson's mind they must have been more like divine political scripture. Too bad he didn't have time to send them out to be carved in stone.

It seems Nelson believes it is his role, as one of the Democratic leaders in this state, to decide who should be allowed to run for governor. "You've got to have somebody that can appeal to moderate and conservative Republicans and Democrats and is perceived as a mainstream person," he declared.

Nelson revealed that sometime in the coming months he, along with fellow Democrats Bob Graham (Florida's senior senator) and Bob Butterworth (state attorney general), will hold a "prayer meeting" with the various Democratic gubernatorial candidates and force some of them out of the race. "Graham and Butterworth and I will try to get them to recognize that [it's for the good of the party that they drop out]," he said. "That's going to be very tough. There's probably going to be some hurt feelings in the process."

Your guess is as good as mine as to why Nelson believes he and the Bobs think they should decide who stays in and who must go. I was under the impression that was the reason we had elections. And excuse me for not trusting that particular triumvirate to be disinterested in their deliberations. It seems pretty clear they have a favorite candidate. But I'll get to that in a second. First let's recap the political action of the past few months.

Defeating Jeb Bush is the Democratic Party's highest priority next year. As the last presidential election demonstrated, Florida is a pivotal state. Democratic strategists believe that if they want to dethrone George W. in 2004, they must defeat Jeb in 2002.

Jeb clearly is vulnerable. The presidential balloting fiasco continues to energize the Democratic Party's base, particularly blacks. And his record in office is more conservative than the platform on which he ran in 1998.

At the start of this year, the Democrats had a problem: They lacked a serious contender willing to take on the challenge of beating Jeb. Many were hoping one of the Bobs would agree to run, but Butterworth didn't seem to have the desire for a grueling campaign, and Graham didn't want his legacy tainted by a final election that would be bitter, partisan, and possibly a loser. This left the party with a ragtag collection of B-list pols eager for the exposure but without the faintest chance of defeating Bush.

Faced with this predicament, Nelson and the two Bobs huddled privately and came up with a name: Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former congressman from North Florida who at the time was U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. The trio then pulled other party officials onto the bandwagon, where they all began singing the praises of Peterson's life story. A former fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and spent more than six years as a prisoner at the dreaded Hanoi Hilton. Twenty-five years after his release he returned to Vietnam as the United States' first postwar ambassador, helping to normalize relations, opening new trade opportunities, and pressing the search for the remains of missing soldiers. There is even a romantic angle: Early in his tenure as ambassador, Peterson met and married a Vietnamese woman. Party leaders envision packaging the 66-year-old diplomat as a Democratic version of John McCain, someone who can draw moderate Republicans and independents away from Jeb Bush.

Peterson, it appears, was virtually guaranteed the Democratic nomination. At the urging of Graham and Nelson, Miami Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge flew to Vietnam in early May to meet with the ambassador and talk about the campaign. "They encouraged me to go to Vietnam and meet with him," Korge says. "He is clearly the best candidate we have for beating Jeb."

Long before his name surfaced as a candidate, Peterson was asked by President Bush to stay on indefinitely as ambassador. He seemed content to do just that, but swayed by his party's appeals, Peterson resigned his post and announced his intention to enter the race.

As the party's hierarchy circled around Peterson and prepared for his return to Florida, Janet Reno was secretly approached by a small group of long-time friends who urged her to consider running for governor. "There is a political calculus to all of this," says one of those friends, Carole Shields, past president of People for the American Way. "The percentage of incumbents who are defeated is very small to begin with. But to beat Jeb Bush, with all the machinery behind him, would be an extraordinary thing. It would have to be a remarkable candidate, someone who could create excitement about the race the moment they entered, someone who could raise money not just in Florida but across the country, someone who could energize the Democratic Party and bring Democrats to the polls in record numbers. The only person I know who could do that is Janet Reno."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede