Douglas "Pete" Peterson, former POW and freshly retired ambassador to Vietnam, filed papers Tuesday to challenge Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in next year's election.
The 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran joins a crowded field of Democrats who have declared interest in taking on the president's brother, considered vulnerable because of the contentious way George W. Bush won the White House in Florida in November.
The highest-profile Democrat, who has yet to formally declare her candidacy, is former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. She has the greatest name recognition among Democrats but could be handicapped in the Panhandle and other conservative areas of the state by her eight years of service in the Clinton administration.
Peterson, a former congressman from north Florida, carries none of that polarizing baggage. He lacks Reno's statewide prominence, but his Vietnam War record would give him immediate stature on the campaign trail.
A former fighter pilot, Peterson spent 6 1/2 years imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison after his F-4 Phantom was shot down over the former North Vietnam.
He retired after 26 years in the Air Force and moved to Marianna in Florida's Panhandle where he ran contracting and computer businesses.
In 1990, Peterson was elected to Congress, representing a wide strip of north Florida, and served three terms.
Peterson returned to this state only six days ago, after four years of service as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, the first American envoy in that country since the end of the war.
The former pilot was viewed by many in Hanoi as a diligent force for healing wounds left by the war and for promoting U.S.-Vietnamese reconciliation.
Even while in Hanoi, Peterson was dogged by speculation that he might seek the Florida governorship. Until filing papers Tuesday, he had been elusive, saying he wanted to take his time, travel around the state and gauge support for a possible campaign. He even needed to reapply for a Florida driver's license, he said.
Peterson has given little, if any, indication of what his platform might be. But last Wednesday, when he flew into the regional airport in Tallahassee, the state capital, he was greeted by 60 enthusiastic fans carrying signs that read "We need you for governor."
"I recommend that you don't throw the signs away," he told the crowd.
The first person to greet him was Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, the state's highest-ranking Democratic official.
"I'm here to welcome home an American hero," Butterworth said. He said the retired military officer and ex-ambassador "personified public service."
Peterson returned home with his wife, Vi Le, a Vietnamese native he wed in 1998.
Three other Florida Democrats already have declared their candidacy in their party's gubernatorial primary: state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, attorney Bill McBride of Tampa and state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach.
Also Tuesday, Associated Press reported from Tallahassee that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a GOP supporter of George W. Bush who played a controversial role in last year's presidential election, will run for Congress in 2002.
The agency's source was state GOP Executive Director David Johnson, but Johnson said in a telephone interview that the report of Harris seeking a Gulf Coast seat was premature.
"She's still considering. There has been no formal announcement, although she is about to open an exploratory campaign account," Johnson said Tuesday evening.