Backtracking in the face of a firestorm of criticism, Bill Nelson apologized Thursday for comparing Charles Street to Willie Horton and promised not to do it again. Nelson, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, said he never saw the controversial advertisements featuring Horton. George Bush used Horton, a black, convicted murderer who raped a white woman while on a prison furlough, to attack Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 campaign advertisements. Bush's critics considered them racist.
When Nelson began his campaign for governor last week, he tried to use Street in much the same way to attack Gov. Bob Martinez and compared Street's case with Horton's. Street, who is black, was charged in 1988 with killing two Miami-area police officers 10 days after being released early from a Florida prison.
Nelson's use of Street and Horton met strong criticism from black activists, another Demo-cratic candidate for governor and some of Nelson's own supporters.
On Thursday, Nelson said he had made a mistake.
"There has been a linkage between Charles Street and Willie Horton, and that was a mistake because of racial implications that I did not intend," the Melbourne congressman said in a telephone interview. "And for that, I apologize."
Nelson indicated that he had not considered the racial implications of linking Street and Horton. "I was thinking of Horton only as a symbol of early release," he said.
Although he plans to change his tactics, Nelson said he will continue to question the state's method of releasing inmates early to reduce overcrowding. The practice began at the start of Martinez's term.
"I will lessen my focus on Street," he said, "but there are others."
Nelson specifically mentioned the case of James Savage, the Aborigine who was released early from prison and was sentenced to death last month for raping and murdering a Melbourne woman. The victim, Barbara Ann Barber, has been described by Nelson as a good friend.
Ted Phelps, Nelson's campaign manager, has said that campaign advertisements already have been shot that mention Street's name. On Thursday, Nelson and Phelps would not say whether those advertisements will be scrapped.
"We have filmed TV (ads), but we don't have any finished spots," Nelson said.
As criticism heightened, on Wednesday Nelson acquired and watched a tape of one of Bush's advertisements criticizing Dukakis and Massachusetts' policy of releasing prisoners before their sentences were completed. Phelps said Nelson wanted to see the advertisement "because he didn't understand the furor."
"He's shocked at the reaction to the words "Willie Horton,' " Phelps said, "and he regrets it."
J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who is Martinez's campaign manager, suggested Nelson may not be able to correct the damage by apologizing.
"I suppose it's as graceful a way as any to get out of a mess you created," Stipanovich said.