Fla. stakes high, race close


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Democrats here are soaring on a gale of optimism about their prospects of regaining the governorship -- and halting a seemingly inexorable Republican advance in Florida politics -- behind former Sen. Lawton Chiles.

"I think he wins, no doubt about it," says Mike Abrams, a state legislator from Miami who was one of the leaders of the opposition to Chiles in the Democratic primary. "He defies the laws of gravity. He took our best shots and it sort of just rolled off him like water off a duck."

The stakes are huge. If Gov. Bob Martinez can survive, the Republicans will have positioned themselves to dominate not only the congressional redistricting process but state politics at all levels for a generation or more.

The pervasive confidence among the Democrats is based, first, on the fact that Chiles defeated Rep. Bill Nelson in the primary by a 2-to-1 margin, despite -- or perhaps because of -- a tough campaign by Nelson to cut him down to size. A second factor is the consensus that Martinez, who won the governorship four years ago, is extremely vulnerable.

There are, nonetheless, other factors that suggest the contest may not be the boat ride these Democrats foresee. The Democratic edge in voter registration that was almost 3-to-1 a decade ago is now down to about 5-to-4. Largely because Chiles has set a $100 limit on contributions to his campaign, Martinez will outspend him in television advertising by at least 2-to-1 and perhaps by a substantially larger margin -- in a state with seven or eight distinct media markets and a population still growing fast enough so that it is heavily weighted with voters who moved here since Chiles last campaigned for the Senate eight years ago.

Mechanics aside, it may be that the Democrats are underestimating Martinez. He has never been described as either charismatic or cuddly, but he is a combative and tenacious politician who will not go quietly. Although his disapproval rating has at times soared above 50 percent, he has been running a carefully crafted television advertising campaign that has reduced it to 38 percent -- nothing to write home about, but enough of an improvement to suggest he is very much in the game.

Politicians in both parties believe Martinez scored a coup during the primary campaign -- his renomination was always assured -- by running what they call "a mea culpa" commercial in which he admitted making "mistakes" in his first term. That was designed to neutralize some of the anger that lingered from his most damaging gaffe, an attempt early in his stewardship to impose a sales tax on services that he was forced to abandon under fire. The voters were receptive, Martinez says, "because most people believe they have made mistakes, too."

And some street-smart Democrats agree. "I have to be honest," says Rep. Larry Smith, "a lot of people told me they thought it was pretty good."

Chiles won in the face of Nelson's attempt to raise some fuzzy questions about his business dealings and more pointed ones ** about the fact that he was taking Prozac, a medication to relieve emotional depression. The conventional wisdom after the primary was, first, that the size of Chiles' plurality was a reaction against negative campaigning and, second, that the Martinez campaign will be restrained in raising similar personal questions.

"I think it's ours to lose," says Ron Silver, another Democratic legislator. "It worked out better for us because he won so big. This is so overwhelming they can't go negative."

It is also true, however, that Chiles did not emerge unscathed. His own negatives rose from negligible to 28 percent. As Martinez puts it, "He's got a little disapproval hickey he didn't have."

So far the Martinez campaign has been at least marginally subtle in raising questions about Chiles' decision to leave the Senate two years ago in what he admitted was some personal frustration. A commercial shows "Bob Martinez -- in the arena" and reminds Florida voters that "Bob Martinez never quits and walks away."

At this point, polls show the race essentially even -- Chiles ahead, but within the margin of error. But they also show Chiles not as well-known as Martinez has become, for better or worse. It is the kind of situation that offers an obvious opening for Martinez to use his advantage in money to define Chiles in his own terms. Chiles may be the favorite here but he is not home free.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.


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