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Race for governor is key to GOP's future in Florida

The campaign for governor of Florida is one of the big ones this year. The outcome can determine whether the state that soon will be the nation's fourth most populous will become an unassailable Republican bastion. The central figure in the campaign, Gov. Bob Martinez, is well aware of the stakes. "We're basically here in a transition stage," he says. "It's who's going to be in charge for the next generation."

Republican progress in Florida has had an inexorable quality over the last decade. The Democratic margin in voter registration has fallen from almost 3-to-1 to 5-to-4. Republicans control the state's congressional delegation, and are within four seats _ a realistic target this year _ of capturing the state Senate. There are now, for the first time ever, two Republicans who have been elected to state Cabinet offices. And, equally important politically, there are now 26 counties with Republican sheriffs. In presidential elections, Florida is so devoutly Republican the Democrats didn't even try to compete in either 1984 or 1988.

Whether the Republicans can maintain this political momentum seems to rest, however, on a very iffy proposition _ a governor who bears the scars of having been embroiled in one political hassle after another in his four years here. One recent opinion poll showed his disapproval rating at an extremely dangerous 44 percent and showed him narrowly trailing two potential Democratic opponents.

Mac Stipanovich, Martinez's prime political operative, dismisses the poll figures as a natural result of a situation in which partisan lines have been drawn with increasing clarity over the last few years.

But other political professionals in the state say Martinez suffered lasting damage from two high-visibility episodes. The first was his promulgation in 1987 of a services tax that covered everything from dry cleaning to lawyers' fees to newspaper advertising _ a tax that proved so unpopular Martinez was forced to scuttle it. The second was his decision immediately after the Supreme Court decision in the Missouri case last summer to call a special session of the legislature to deal with abortion _ a move that seemed so politically opportunistic it backfired resoundingly.

Martinez is taking nothing for granted in seeking a second term. He already has raised more than $5-million of the $12-million or more he will spend on the campaign. And, in the aftermath of those poll numbers, the campaign is now running some $2-million worth of television advertising.

There are some assets there for the Republican governor. In a state heavily preoccupied by the crime-drugs issue, Martinez will let no one forget he has signed 100 death penalty warrants in his first term, including the one for Ted Bundy. And Martinez can tick off enough initiatives on the environment, always a major concern here, so that even some normally Democratic environmental groups give him decent marks.

In the end, however, this campaign, like most, is likely to turn on the perceptions of the candidates' personal qualities. And Martinez, a former Democratic mayor of Tampa, has never been a charismatic politician. But Stipanovich laughs that off. "Compared to Bob Graham or Woodrow Wilson or Bob LaFollette, he'd be in terrible shape. But he's not running against any of those guys. He's running against (leading Democratic candidate) Bill Nelson."

Right now, however, it seems fair to say that Bob Martinez has a plate full of political problems.

Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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