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Reno tells TIME that she is ready to parry. She notes that as America's top cop she oversaw a drop in national crime statistics eight years in a row. As for her chances against Bush: "Folks in the [Florida] Panhandle know as well as folks in Miami that the base line for excellence in areas like education, criminal justice and the environment should be higher here." What about her Parkinson's disease? As Reno, 63, travels the state in a red Ford pickup, her de facto campaign symbol, her illness hardly seems an issue. Says ex-N.O.W. president Patricia Ireland, another South Florida denizen urging Reno to run: "The same people knocking her are the ones who said Hillary Clinton couldn't sell herself outside New York City." She adds that if Democrats must win the north Florida vote that eluded Gore last year, they must also retain the massive black anti-Jeb Bush turnout that kept Gore neck and neck with W. in the state.
Liberals say that will be harder for the candidate already anointed by centrist Democrats: former Panhandle Congressman Douglas (Pete) Peterson, a former Vietnam prisoner of war who returned to that Southeast Asian country in 1997 as Bill Clinton's U.S. ambassador. Fans tout Peterson as a Democratic John McCain; detractors say he is McCain without the charisma. But Nelson and Florida's senior Senator, Bob Graham, sent top Democratic fund raisers to Hanoi last spring to lure Peterson home. As he and his Vietnamese wife Vi Le were packing in May, Reno broke the blind-siding news that she too might run--setting up a potential north-south rift that could weaken the Democrats as they prepare to battle Bush.
Peterson so far polls 32% against Bush. But he keeps the Governor at 48% and leaves a 20% chunk undecided. It's the kind of math the centrists like. Peterson would first have to vanquish Reno in the primary, which means, he acknowledges, taking on the onerous task of convincing Democrats that he can "appeal ultimately to a wider section of voters than Democrats." Still, unless they can transform Peterson into a more galvanizing pol or make Reno more appealing to Floridians above Lake Okeechobee, the Democrats look about as likely to win as the alligators that Reno's late mother used to wrestle--and beat.
--With reporting by Michael Peltier/Tallahassee