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Fuzzing the record . . .

Seven months before the first primary, Bob Martinez is spending $2-million on television advertisements to make voters think he has been a good governor. Money is a poor substitute for the truth, but it's all he's got. It should be noted, however, that he does have a lot of it - $4.5-million - and expects to raise $15-million by November. The first commercial, extolling the praiseworthy aspects of Martinez's mixed environmental record, shows the man himself only briefly as he walks along a beach. He lets a professional announcer speak for him. These are the same tactics used to sell luxury cars and other consumer products. An opponent's campaign manager calls the ad "warm and fuzzy." Fuzzing over Martinez's record on transportation, crime, tax policy and overall leadership may be more of a challenge.

The $2-million he is spending on this pre-campaign campaign is very nearly the limit he could have spent on the entire 1990 race had he and the Legislature kept faith with the public finance law enacted four years ago. It calls for the state to provide partial matching funds to candidates for governor and Cabinet who agree to abide by pre-determined spending limits. But there is no money to speak of in the trust fund and Martinez hasn't asked the Legislature for any. He prefers to let special interests pay for his re-election, whatever it costs them, rather than be forced to take his chances against equally financed challengers.

To its credit, the House Ethics Committee voted 13-1 last week to breathe life into the election fund by earmarking the proceeds from a $10-a-year increase in the fee corporations pay to file their annual reports. This would raise $20-million for the next election, while necessarily abandoning the current campaign to wretched excess on both sides. Passing this bill is one of the most important things the 1990 Legislature can do to make politicians run on their real records instead of on warm and fuzzy images from Madison Avenue.

Meanwhile, in Washington

The presidential campaign fund is in trouble. Barely 20 percent of taxpayers checked "yes" last year at the place where Form 1040 asks whether you want $1 of your taxes to help finance presidential campaigns. That's down from 40 percent in 1980. With support declining and prescribed costs rising, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) will not have enough for 1992.

The problem is lack of interest, not opposition. Congress shouldn't have financed the law that way, but it didn't have the nerve to break such new ground straightforwardly.

The fund provides partial matching funds to primary candidates who agree to predetermined spending limits and who show certain fund-raising and vote-getting abilities on their own. It also pays for the political party nominating conventions and for the entire costs of their November campaigns.

The Elections Commission has seriously undermined the purpose behind the law by allowing corporations, labor unions and individual fat cats to contribute many more millions of dollars, unregulated, to state parties for party-building activities such as voter registration that are frequently a disguise for partisan spending. In fact, a federal court has ordered the FEC to crack down on this so-called "soft money." But the FEC's failure to do its job should not be compounded by allowing the election fund to collapse. That would make candidates totally dependent on special interest money and remove all restraints on spending.

This is one problem that voters can do a lot about. It takes only a simple check mark in the "yes" box on the Form 1040. President Reagan refused to do that even while helping himself to the public money for his campaigns but President and Mrs. Bush set a better example. They check "yes" and before April 15 should urge every taxpayer to do so.

A bad idea back again

Doing away with Florida's runoff primary is a bad idea that doesn't improve with time. But it's back, just like the flu and the chicken pox. Secretary of State Jim Smith thinks it's the runoff that's a bad idea. Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, is pushing the Senate bill.

LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham all would have had their outstanding careers nipped in the bud without runoff primaries. There's reason enough to think twice before abolishing the runoff.

Kiser says the runoff primary has outlived its purpose, which was to serve as a substitute general election when the Democratic Party's nomination was tantamount to election. But of the four leaders named above, only Collins' 1954 gubernatorial victory predated two-party politics. In the later races, it is clear that the runoff primary enabled the Democrats to field their strongest and most popular candidates. As their party matures, Republicans will find that aspect useful too.

The great danger in eliminating runoffs would lie in making it possible for extremist candidates to win nomination with small pluralities in large fields.

The more cogent objection to runoffs is that they add a lot to the cost of campaigns in both time and money. That problem could be largely solved, however, by restricting runoffs to situations where no candidate polls 40 percent or more of the votes in a primary. History shows that whoever runs that well the first time almost always wins the runoff.

Fix the runoff, fine. Scrap it? No!

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