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Campaign isn't stirring voters

The campaign yard sign is a noble, portable billboard of democracy. Because Tampa usually takes its politics seriously, the signs are now as common as palms across town, touting the names and ambitions of local candidates. Oddly, though, you see hardly any yard signs for Bob Martinez. It's true that he lost the city the first time he ran for governor, but it is still his home, and that ought to count for more than pocket change.

Just as odd, you see hardly any yard signs for Lawton Chiles, the supposed White Knight of politics who was going to save Florida from the man the Democrats dubbed the Prince of Darkness.

If all you read were yard signs, it would seem almost as though there's no race at all.

What race there is, though, has gone pfffft.

There is not one theme that has made itself plain, not one great political wind that will blow us to the polls to punch those computer cards with righteous faith in our candidate, whoever he is.

There is instead a tangle of loose ends, about Martinez's fund raising, Chiles' fund raising, the governor's TV ads, his opponent's ads.

We could consider the candidates' state of mind _ Chiles for taking Prozac, Martinez for supporting creationism. But we'd also have to weigh how Chiles said it would be okay with him if local school districts determined how to handle the creationism issue.

We could ponder tactics, about how President Bush is trying to bail out the governor and his sagging fortunes and whether Chiles simply isn't campaigning enough.

He isn't.

The man who elevated the act of putting one foot in front of the other and crossing the street into political magic was supposed to stir us with rhetoric, with brave words about how Martinez went wrong, about how specifically he would do better. Instead Chiles went, not silent certainly, just soft.

The Democrats are antsy their man will lose because of this. But the risk is far greater. It affects everybody who lives in this big and unruly state.

If Lawton Chiles had done his campaign job differently, then he'd force Bob Martinez to do his.

We'd hear solid, specific talk from both these men about the state budget, the recession, the prospects of joblessness, and even, if the shock did not kill us, taxation.

We have had none of these things, from either man. Instead, all you hear is pfffft.

It is widely said that voters don't care anymore, and what's going down on this page may sound like that. But instead, this is a piece on why we look at elections with discomfort and a tinge of disgust. It is no small trick to pay attention to the unreal, the incomplete or the vague.

If the picking were mine, I would have a candidate who made me want to stand up on a folding chair in a stuffy room, crane my neck and cock my head to hear him precisely, to get a hard look at this person who was asking to take my vote and my trust, almost as though they were my money.

When I was done inspecting, if the candidate were lucky, I would start cheering. I would know how to choose and whom to choose and I would put my heart into doing so.

It's been so long that politicians moved us this way we aren't even articulate about describing the phenomenon. "The vision thing" was the best anybody came up with.

Thirteen days remain until the election. Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles are even supposed to meet once in debate. Thirteen days before the election is not too late for a miracle. Maybe one will happen.

Otherwise, wake me when the campaign is over.