Fla. race tests fund-raising on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 30, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LAKE WORTH, Fla. -- They all laughed last April when former Sen. Lawton Chiles, declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor, announced that he would limit contributions to his campaign to $100.

Florida is the nation's fourth most populous state. It has eight media markets, and television advertising -- the life blood of politics today -- is expensive. Moreover, Gov. Bob Martinez, the embattled but combative Republican incumbent, could be counted on to raise and spend $6 million or $8 million or whatever it took.

But no one is laughing today. Chiles has not matched Martinez, but he has received 62,000 contributions averaging $68 each, which factors out to more than $4 million, or enough to run an advertising campaign that is at least competitive.

Chiles is a little surprised, too. In his 1976 campaign for the Senate, when he put a $10 ceiling on contributions, he received 38,000. This time he expects the total to run over 70,000 by election day. Buddy MacKay, the former congressman running for lieutenant governor with Chiles, was one of the doubters; now he is amazed to find $500,000 a week pouring into the campaign.

But what may be most important about Chiles' innovative approach to fund-raising is not just that it has been successful in dollar terms. Instead, it may be the role it is playing in defining his campaign as an attempt to reform the political process that has dismayed so many voters. By limiting contributors to $100, Chiles is saying that he isn't running the usual mindlessly expensive exercise and won't be a governor beholden to special interests.

"It really forces you to do things differently," says MacKay. "You have to reach out to more people."

Or, put another way, Chiles and MacKay are telling voters, in effect, that this is a very different campaign and it is time to put up or shut up on their complaints about the system. "Bob Martinez is not a bad person," Chiles tells an audience in Boca Raton, "He's locked into the system."

There are, of course, other more conventional issues more visible in the campaign. In one sense, it is a referendum on Martinez's stormy first term. In another, it is a measure of the effectiveness of the advertising campaign for Martinez, which has lifted him from 15 to 20 points down to essentially even in the most recent published opinion surveys even though most voters still give his performance bad marks.

Nor is Chiles without baggage. He is a candidate who left the Senate in frustration and had a history of taking medication to treat emotional depression. He has cast some votes that allow him to be painted as more liberal than Florida voters have been embracing recently.

Chiles has some obvious assets. He is a politician with a well-established acceptability, as he demonstrated by winning a primary in a landslide over a better-financed rival, Rep. Bill Nelson. And Democrats here are more united and aroused than they have been since Bob Graham's second campaign for governor in 1982. They know that if they don't reclaim the governorship from a candidate with as many scars as Martinez, they may not get as good an opportunity for a generation or longer.

And, although he is reluctant to exploit the issue, Chiles is benefiting from his identification as the abortion rights candidate -- a position that could be critical if the election is as close as polls today suggest. Ted Brabham, the Palm Beach County Democratic chairman, says about one-fourth of the 7,000 new Democrats registered in his county this fall have been Republicans switching and most of those have been women moved by the abortion issue.

Chiles' position also has been enhanced by the general shift away from Republicans in the past two to three weeks, a movement some Republican professionals say is costing them 5 percent in generic support for the party right now. Chiles says he thought he detected "a click in the enthusiasm" of his supporters about 10 days ago.

But the high card for Chiles has to be the context of the politics of 1990. If the voters are as fed up with politics as usual as they seem to be saying, then here is a chance for them to make a statement.

If you elect me, Chiles tells his listeners, "we can change the way politics is played" all over the country. But the question is whether enough voters care enough to bother.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening 8 Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The ; Sunday Sun.

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