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Chiles' lets inner voice call his spots

Lawton Chiles' inner voice is piping up again. As usual, it is guiding him off the beaten political path. For the past six weeks, it has steered him into uncharted campaign territory and often out of the public eye.

It is making a lot of his fellow Democrats nervous.

"Mine is not to reason why. Mine is only to obey," Chiles said by way of explanation, only half-joking.

The inner voice _ also known as political instinct, gut feeling or maybe a higher power _ flawlessly has guided Chiles through his political life so far, and he has talked about it freely. It told him to leave the U.S. Senate in 1988 rather than run for a fourth term. It told him in April to get into the Florida governor's race.

Another voice urging him to run for governor was that of former U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay, who became Chiles' running mate. MacKay counts himself among the nervous, but he says he's willing to trust Chiles' creative campaigning.

"We can't say till after the election that this is the way to do it," MacKay said.

They call it "program days."

Chiles and MacKay go into a community for two or three days a week and get acquainted with the local programs that seem to be dealing successfully with widespread problems, such as teen-age pregnancy, drugs or the environment. The idea is to see what works, then if Chiles is elected, to try to duplicate the success on a regional or statewide basis.

"The amazing thing is," Chiles told an audience last week, "almost all of these problems that we're talking about, somebody has got a solution to them."

It confirms his suspicion that the action is no longer in Washington but at the local level, that the best ideas are coming from the bottom.

The other amazing thing is that Chiles is spending so much time this way so soon before the Nov. 6 election, with poll after poll showing a dead heat.

Republican Gov. Bob Martinez is flying around the state conducting news conferences and shaking hands at barbecues and rallies. He has brought a parade of big guns to help him _ President Bush three times, Vice President Dan Quayle twice, and Barbara Bush will be with him

Monday in Miami.

Martinez also is saturating the airwaves with television commercials designed to make him look good and Chiles look bad.

That's how you conduct a high-stakes campaign in the final weeks. Right?

Well, I asked Chiles about this one night in Lakeland, his hometown, after the sun went down and the crowd thinned out at a political rally in the town square.

"What we're doing is where I get the energy from, you know," Chiles said, sitting at a picnic table under the trees. "I think where I got off the track awhile is when I quit doing that in the primary. I began to go back to the old thing of airport press conferences," which is a favorite campaign method of Martinez's.

"It's a bore, and you're not learning anything, you're not doing anything," Chiles said.

Then softly, "I don't know _ I feel as confident as I've ever felt about anything in my life."

With a grin, Chiles reminded me that I wrote a column during the primary questioning his campaign style and criticizing his disorganized staff. He didn't have to remind me that he won the primary with 70 percent of the vote.

I acknowledged that his staff has become much more efficient. He acknowledged that his campaign style is untraditional.

"It scares everybody to death, you know, a lot of people in the campaign," he said.

It scares people outside the campaign, too. Tommy Thomas, the former Republican state chairman who broke bitterly with Martinez, made his own commercial attacking Martinez because Chiles is "too much of a gentleman."

Some Democratic legislators have said they're worried the Chiles campaign is too soft. An elections expert at the University of South Florida said via news release that Chiles will lose if he isn't more aggressive.

Chiles just keeps saying, "I have to do what I feel is right."

On his program days, Chiles has soaked up information about affordable housing in Tampa, magnet schools in Palm Beach Gardens, dropout prevention in Orlando, drug treatment in Miami. He and MacKay still are talking about how impressed they were with the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County and its myriad programs, how surprised they were that voters had agreed to tax themselves to help children.

Program days worry the Chiles supporters because Chiles isn't pressing the flesh, isn't criticizing Martinez and isn't even pretending to make news. The meetings are long and there's nothing to take pictures of. Chiles just listens and asks questions.

At other times, he does make speeches and attend rallies. And on program days, his campaign staff tries to mix in some press events.

Last week at the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, for example, Chiles and MacKay heard a series of environmentalists, divers and water-quality experts lament the pollution in coastal waters. The candidates asked specific questions about how the state could help and got an earful.

Then they went to the beach for a news conference where the television crews showed up. Live at noon. One of the environmentalists brought along a bucket of algae and wiggled it like green spaghetti in front of the cameras. Chiles talked about what he had learned that morning and delivered the necessary soundbite: "You can't just keep damaging nature without doing something about it."

The camera crews packed up and left. Then Chiles happily spent the afternoon in a long meeting about saving the Everglades.

It's a weird way to campaign, but it is valuable on several levels, said campaign coordinator Jim Krog. One is that Chiles learns about the state, which is what he wants. He also gets time on the local television news, some days.

More difficult to assess is the impression Chiles makes on the handful of people involved in the programs. They don't meet with him because they are Chiles supporters but because they are experts in their fields. Still, Krog said, they might appreciate Chiles' attention and tell their friends and colleagues.

Krog harkened back to the walk Chiles made down the length of Florida when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970.

"Everybody said it was the dumbest idea on the face of the earth," Krog said. But by the end, "everybody was talking about this crazy guy who walked through, who actually cared enough to stop by their yard to find out what they wanted to do with their government. This is not a walk, but it has the same grass-roots essentials that that does."

Chiles cooked up the idea for program days with his wife, Rhea, and she has joined him on these trips, taking notes, asking questions and putting what they learn in their computer. She is fascinated by the communities' new solutions to old problems.

"We've really, I think, finally quit just throwing money at things or approaching it from the bureaucratic standpoint," she said during a trip last week. "So many things are open to us now. We are really saying all this other didn't work, so now we can all sit down and look at something new. And that's exciting. I just think it's the best game in town. I love it."

But isn't it politically risky? Shouldn't her husband be out shaking hands?

"Well, let me ask you _ why do you think $500,000 came in this last week?" she said. "There's something about this man that motivates people to put $100 in an envelope, stick it in the mail and send it in.

"I think what you're seeing is the man doing his thing, and I think there's a direct connection. People are smarter and people are more perceptive and they get the message. They get the idea."

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