In Fla. governor's race, experience is a liability

October 18, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

AVENTURA, Fla. -- Talking to an audience of the elderly at the Point East condominium complex here the other day, Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. evoked a round of applause when he told them that when he flew on one of those big 747 jets and the pilot came out of the cockpit, "I feel a lot better if he has a little gray in his hair."

This is one of the oldest of old chestnuts in American politics -- the late Hubert H. Humphrey used the identical line to the elderly at a Florida condo in 1972 even though he was using a little brown coloring in his hair to try to appear younger. And the fact that the 64-year-old Democratic governor is obliged to use it speaks volumes about his campaign to stave off the challenge from his 41-year-old Republican opponent, Jeb Bush.

After three terms in the Senate -- he retired in 1988 -- and one as governor, Mr. Chiles has no choice but to run on his own experience and the fact that Mr. Bush, who has spent most of his life in business, has no public record except for a brief stint as state commerce commissioner. So the Democratic governor attacks Mr. Bush -- he refers to him patronizingly as "John Ellis," a reference to his baptismal name -- for a lack of judgment, citing such things as his long-ago criticism of the late Rep. Claude Pepper, his support for school vouchers and his choice of an extremely conservative running mate this year.

"Before I tried to talk the talk, I walked the walk," Mr. Chiles tells the elders in the condo, made politically famous by the late Annie Ackerman, the one-time "condo queen" who mobilized votes for Democrats here in the past.

And, of course, the embattled incumbent tries to touch a nerve by playing off the fact that both Jeb Bush and his brother George W. Bush are running for governorships this year. "I don't believe being a former president gives you the right to give Texas to one son and Florida to another. Florida's not for sale."

But the problem for Mr. Chiles is that, unless all the opinion polls across the nation are dead wrong, this is the wrong year for an incumbent politician to be making a case of the fact that his opponent is not an equally experienced politician.

On the contrary, what the voters here and elsewhere seem to be seeking is someone who will, in effect, dismantle politics and government as usual.

'I'm going to do it'

"I hope they mean it," Mr. Bush says, riding down Interstate 95 to another campaign stop, "because I'm going to do it."

At this point, it seems likely that Mr. Bush will get the opportunity. Opinion polls, both published and private, show him leading the incumbent governor by 7 to 10 percentage points among likely voters, with only 10 percent to 12 percent of the electorate still undecided.

Some veteran Democrats here believe Mr. Chiles' only realistic option would be to run harder negative television commercials attacking Mr. Bush personally on his record in the investment business. But Mr. Chiles is reportedly resisting such an approach because he has not been willing to use it in the past.

Moreover, Mr. Chiles' greatest strength now is what a Republican professional calls "the perception that he's a decent human being." Polls that show that voters hold negative views on the governor's performance in the past four years also show that they think well of him personally.

So Mr. Chiles continues to press the experience question, although well aware that there is a reaction against incumbents in general and perhaps Democrats in particular this year.

"I don't know how to measure that," he says, "but it's there."

The Democrat also remains confident that the voters eventually will have second thoughts. "I think people are beginning to say, 'How do you like Lawton compared to him?' " Mr. Chiles says.

For his part, Mr. Bush presses ahead with a conservative line that is far tougher than his open, friendly manner seems to suggest. He talks about "decline" and the "lack of opportunity" for the next generation, about the rising "level of violence" that has made crime the most volatile issue of the year and the growth of a "permanent underclass" because of failures in the welfare system.

He argues for more prisoners serving more of their sentences with fewer creature comforts in the prisons and for changing a welfare system that is "unattached to responsibility." But Mr. Bush is careful to avoid the direct personal attack. Mr. Chiles, he says, "is a decent man," but "he stopped listening a long time ago."

Several factors may enhance Mr. Bush's prospects. For one thing, there is a casino gambling referendum on the ballot that is expected to attract a heavy vote among religious conservatives who are overwhelmingly Republican. The Senate campaign is also running heavily Republican, with Sen. Connie Mack leading Hugh Rodham, Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, 3 to 1 or better.

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