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Another long-shot Chiles treads the Florida campaign trail

Gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles talks with a reporter Friday as he heads down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City in Tampa on his campaign hike. He chatted with people on the streets and handed out business cards.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles talks with a reporter Friday as he heads down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City in Tampa on his campaign hike. He chatted with people on the streets and handed out business cards.

TAMPA — Forty years after his little-known father used a pair of boots to launch himself into political folklore, Lawton "Bud" Chiles III hopes to emulate the strategy during his independent run for governor by walking across Florida and connecting with voters.

The signature Chiles campaign tactic hasn't changed much, but Florida's political environment has. Retail politics is less effective, and the state has added hundreds of thousands of new voters who likely haven't heard of Chiles or his father. The electorate is also more fragmented, and statewide candidates need vast sums to get their message in several major TV markets.

As Chiles, 57, grows older, he looks more and more like his father. He's trying to sound like him, as well, by focusing on cleaning up money in politics. The lifelong Democrat said that's the main reason he is running an independent campaign.

Politicians "are so busy paying off campaign contributions that they're not taking care of the basic needs of families," Chiles said during a campaign stop Friday in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood. "Communities are getting weaker as a result of this political system."

Dressed in a light blue button-down shirt, khakis and brown hiking shoes, Chiles walked with his son Geoff for about 1.5 miles through largely empty streets in Ybor. He met with about a dozen people over an hour.

Even political rivals note similarities between Chiles and his father.

"He's Lawton writ small in more ways than one," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist who worked for former Gov. Bob Martinez. "You've got the name and the walking strategy and the resemblance, but there's no originality. There's no innovation."

• • •

Bud Chiles was in high school when his father literally walked his way into the U.S. Senate in 1970. The younger Chiles volunteered on "Walkin' Lawton's" campaign.

The walk — from Century, on the Florida-Alabama border to John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo — took about three months. Chiles walked 8 to 15 miles a day and slept in a Ford camper that accompanied him from town to town. He reaped a windfall of free publicity that enabled him to neutralize his rivals' advantage in fundraising.

The walk was a phenomenal success, but time has obscured what a long-shot by an unknown candidate it was. The little known state senator from Lakeland defeated Farris Bryant, a former governor and wealthy insurance executive in a runoff for the Democratic nomination.

Bud Chiles is not replicating the marathon hike of his father, but selectively hitting the streets to connect with voters and get his message out. And that message also harkens back to Chiles the elder.

Lawton Chiles campaigned on the theme that big money and powerful interests had hijacked Florida politics, and that the voice of the common man was ignored. What began as a gimmick became instead central to Chiles' identity as a politician.

"It made a pretty big impact on me, more than just the blisters," Bud Chiles said. "It carried through his political career, that idea of staying true to average guys and representing their interests."

• • •

If one recent poll is any indication, Chiles can turn his famous name into votes. In a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, Chiles got 19 percent in a three-way race with likely Democratic nominee Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican.

The poll showed both major candidates losing support when Chiles was included. But there are caveats. The poll had a relatively high margin of error and it also showed that nearly 80 percent of people did not know enough about Chiles to form an opinion of him.

Several major Democrats worry that any support Chiles receives, even if it's only 4 or 5 percent, will come from likely Sink voters.

"He could be a spoiler along the lines of Ralph Nader," said Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "He could hurt the interests that he cares about."

Chiles said he will disseminate commercials through online social media to groups focused on issues such as the environment and education.

"We now have really powerful tools that my father didn't have 40 years ago," he said.

But many observers simply don't see a path for victory. Of the walking campaign, longtime Bud Chiles confidant and Sink supporter Steve Uhlfelder said, "When TV wasn't as important in 1970, it worked. People got most of their political information from newspapers. These days are different."

Uhlfelder, who's known Chiles since their days as volunteers on the Edmund Muskie presidential campaign in 1972, said he tried to talk him out of running. He noted that the elder Chiles had legislative experience and a group of lawmakers who canvassed the state for him.

Uhlfelder described Chiles as an optimistic, religious family man who would have a better impact in private life. "Unless you're independently wealthy or a great fundraiser, you can't win a race in Florida now."

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Adam C. Smith contributed to this story.

Another long-shot Chiles treads the Florida campaign trail 06/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 12, 2010 12:01am]
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