A few weeks ago, Jim Minter, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state and apparent underdog, handed out campaign fliers to Bucs fans at Tampa Stadium. He was heartened by what he heard.
"Every second or third carload that passed me, the people said, "Are you an incumbent?' " Minter recalled.
"I'd say, "No,' and then they'd yell back, "You got my vote.'
Minter, 53, the former newspaperman who came out of nowhere to challenge political veteran and incumbent Secretary of State Jim Smith, has based his campaign on the hope that there are enough people out there willing to take a chance on a newcomer.
But in a recent poll, Smith was favored by 48 percent to Minter's 27 percent, with 25 percent undecided.
Smith, 50, knows well that no Cabinet incumbent has been defeated for re-election since 1974. He wears his incumbency with pride.
He brushes aside Minter's attacks on him as the "big money" candidate, observing that "it's nothing new for a candidate who can't raise money to be critical of those who can." As of Oct. 12, Smith had raised
$883,000 and Minter $13,600.
Reforming the process
Campaign finance is a fashionable issue in any race this year. But Smith and Minter say it is particularly important in theirs because the secretary of state is Florida's chief elections official.
The secretary of state can't actually change the law regarding campaign financing _ that is the Legislature's job. All he can do is lobby for reform and publicize the cause.
Minter criticizes Smith for not being enough of an activist. He advocates severe restrictions on campaign contributions, so that instead of an individual limit of $3,000 in a statewide race, only $250 could be donated by each contributor. He opposes donations from corporations and political action committees.
Smith, too, says big money has no place in politics. However, he maintains that he has pushed reform for more than a decade and has achievements to show for his efforts, such as the 1986 public campaign-finance law.
This year, because legislators have been so embarrassed by furor over the gifts they accept from lobbyists, Smith said he thinks legislators may actually pass reform laws. He said he intends to help shape those laws.
Like Minter, Smith supports tighter limits on campaign contributions. But unlike Minter, who limits contributions from individuals to $250, Smith accepts contributions up to the legal limit.
A long job description
Campaign reform isn't the only issue here, only the most visible one.
But campaigning for secretary of state is an unusual challenge, because few people know what the secretary of state does. So it is not surprising that the candidates have latched onto such a popular issue.
As well as being the chief elections officer, the secretary of state oversees the state's public records and licenses detectives, security guards, polygraph operators and people who want to carry guns.
The state library, archives, the Museum of Florida History and the state's historic sites are under the secretary of state's control. He is Florida's top cultural officer, involved with shows and arts grants.
Perhaps most significantly, as a Cabinet member the secretary of state shares an equal voice with the governor and five other Cabinet officers in matters such as education, the environment, growth management, law enforcement and the state budget.
More people are getting to know the Cabinet system because of the attention that has been paid to its role in environmental matters.
Minter says he intends to be "the greenest Cabinet member ever."
Smith has received good reviews for his work on the Cabinet to protect manatees and his support of environmental land purchases and beach-renourishment measures.
A campaign advertisement shows Smith paddling a canoe and talking about how much he loves Florida.
"The main difference'
In the final analysis, the choice between Smith and Minter becomes a choice between a veteran politician and a veteran political observer.
Although Minter has never held elected office, for almost two decades he did hold a number of government positions, including a job as chief of protocol for then-Secretary of State George Firestone in 1987.
Before going to work for the state, Minter was a political reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald. In 1988, he became an editorial writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, a job he gave up to run for office.
Smith has practiced law privately, but has spent most of his career in government service. In 1978, he was elected attorney general and served two terms. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1986, Smith went to work for Gov. Bob Martinez and switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Martinez appointed Smith to replace Firestone, who had resigned, and in 1988 Smith was elected to complete the term.
"I like Jim Minter," Smith said. "We're similar in a lot of ways.
"But I've got experience, and he doesn't. I've done it, and he's written about it. That's the main difference."
Minter said he thinks he is one underdog who can pull off a victory.
"Everywhere I go, I run into people who understand that big money is buying the TV ads and the elections," he said. "If that word gets out, I will be elected, against all apparent odds."