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"Mac' wields political knife

In a back room at Lawton Chiles' campaign headquarters in Tallahassee, there's a male mannequin dressed in a suit and wearing a mask cut from a black-and-white photograph. It's not a Halloween mask, exactly. But the unsmiling face and intense eyes have frightened many a Florida politician.

It's J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich.

Election ballots a week from today will say that Republican Bob Martinez is running for a second term as governor. But Stipanovich, the governor's campaign manager and closest adviser, is the man whom Chiles and many Florida Democrats see as their real foe.

He is ruthless, he is cynical, he is outrageously quotable. He does the governor's dirty work. Nasty quips. Negative commercials. The Chiles' camp calls it "slash and burn" campaigning.

Stipanovich, 41, says simply, "I am not a nice guy."

He loves to watch his opponents scurry for cover every time he rears back on his hind legs and pounds on his chest. He loves the way Chiles seems so obsessed with him, the way Chiles talks about him in nearly every speech, although audiences outside Tallahassee usually don't know who Stipanovich is.

Chiles has repeatedly offered to debate Stipanovich if Martinez is afraid. The Stipanovich mannequin at Chiles headquarters has a picture of Martinez in the suit pocket.

"Isn't Martinez a creation of Mac?" Chiles said in an interview. "I think if you're really going to talk about the governor at all, or you're going to look at his record or where he's going or where he's been, you've got to look at Mac with him."

A powerful political partnership begins

Martinez was running for mayor of Tampa in 1979 when Stipanovich, a tax lawyer and history buff, sauntered over to a political hot-dog rally to offer his services.

"All current events are history that's insufficiently aged," Stipanovich said in an interview. "I wanted to be a participant."

Martinez asked him to put up yard signs.

Stipanovich suggested he could help with other things, too. Position papers, maybe.

"He and I would spend a lot of time together talking about how he

felt on a particular issue and then I would write a position paper," Stipanovich said. "They were well-received. So I began to travel with him .


. and just one thing led to another."

Martinez served two terms as mayor and has been governor four years with Stipanovich at his side _ or within reach by cellular phone _ at all times.

"It's hard to determine who's the governor," said state Rep. Douglas Jamerson, D-St. Petersburg.

"I can't think of anybody that has as much influence," said Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a Democrat. "I don't think anybody is even in second place. I think the governor listens to him all the time."

Martinez and Stipanovich deny, of course, that there's any shadow governor, any power behind the throne. The best proof, they say, is Stipanovich's disastrous attempt to be the governor's chief of staff after he took office in 1987.

Stipanovich, it turns out, hates governing. It lacks the excitement of a campaign. It bores him.

Stipanovich eventually volunteered to take the fall for the ill-fated services tax that he urged Martinez to support, and he left the governor's office in October 1987 with relief all around.

Back at the Fowler White law firm, which opened a Tallahassee office, Stipanovich worked as a lobbyist. His close ties to Martinez were lucrative for the firm and for Stipanovich, as they had been in Tampa.

Meanwhile, he remained the governor's political adviser.

"I think Mac has had more influence over the governor than any other person," said Sam Bell, who was the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when Martinez took office.

"What I think happened was that after he took the services tax beating, he put the governor in a campaign mode. He's run for office for four years. Instead of making the decisions of a statesman, his decisions have all been decisions of a politician."

All sides agree that a governor's decisions play a part in his re-election. Sometimes politics and policy are difficult to separate. But the governor and many who work closely with him insist that Stipanovich sticks to his political role.

"Mac doesn't even come into the governor's office," Martinez said. "I go days and weeks that I don't even talk to him unless (it's about) the campaign."

Stipanovich said a good example is the transportation bill that Martinez vetoed this year. Stipanovich got to put in his two cents' worth about the political fallout from a veto, but he knew nothing about the bill's design.

"You could torture me right now _ I couldn't tell you what was in the transportation bill," he said.

Football analogies, blue-collar origins

There is no counterpart to Stipanovich in the Chiles campaign. There's not even someone with the title of campaign manager.

Jim Krog, 42, took the reins of the Chiles campaign when the volunteer-run organization threatened to collapse in disarray. He calls himself the campaign coordinator and says vaguely that his job is to make decisions when no one else is around.

Krog, a longtime Democrat, was an aide to Gov. Reubin Askew in the 1970s. He is not a lawyer, but he works as a lobbyist for the law firm of Steel Hector and Davis, which also employed former U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay, Chiles' running mate.

Stipanovich came from a high-powered law firm, too, but his background is strictly blue collar. He grew up in Gainesville, played high school football, then joined the Marines as an intelligence officer in Vietnam. Like Martinez, he was the first in his family to go to college.

He uses football to explain the belligerent image he has cultivated so successfully in Florida political circles.

"It's like a game face. You go to centerfield to toss the coin, you don't want to be chewing gum and smiling like you're thinking about the dance afterwards," he said. "You want to look like you just ate about nine pounds of nails. So that guy will think, "Geez, I hate to face this dude.' "

This, by the way, is the mellow Stipanovich. He wasn't always so nice. He credits the change to the love of a good woman.

Stipanovich left his first marriage in 1982, married a secretary in his law firm and adopted her three children. He adores them all.

"Marrying Mary is the biggest thing that ever happened in my life," he said. "I was always looking for something. I drank too much, I lived too hard. I was not only not careful, I was reckless, in my personal and my professional life."

Drinking has been a problem for Stipanovich at times, he said, and he has quit twice, most recently after a Halloween party at his house last year.

"I was just ripped. It had happened a couple of times over the preceding couple of months, so I said, well, that's probably enough."

He quit smoking at the same time.

Where else would we get those nice quotes?

Stipanovich used to be a Democrat and switched when Martinez did in 1983. As a political volunteer for the Democrats, he said, he drove Chiles around Tampa when Chiles, then a U.S. senator, came to town.

That's why he laughs when he hears Chiles call him "Max," as Chiles does about half the time.

"Do you think he dislikes me?" Stipanovich asked suddenly. "I'm not being facetious. I would be willing to bet you $10 Lawton Chiles does not dislike me."

Said Chiles, "I think he's the best thing since sliced bread. We couldn't do without him. Where else would you get those nice quotes like, "I'm gonna pull their lungs out through their nostrils?' Nobody else can be that poetic."

That's what Stipanovich said in 1986 when Martinez debated Democrat Steve Pacjic, a Jacksonville lawyer labeled a liberal. Stipanovich still has the charts that show how he blew Pacjic's candidacy to bits with commercials saying Pacjic was soft on crime.

"He dropped nine points in three days," Stipanovich remembers.

Stipanovich swears he isn't planning any late hits on Chiles.

"It'll be a very close race. I think we'll go to Election Day without knowing who's going to win."

Win or lose, Stipanovich said, he'll go back to work at Fowler White. He might also work with the national Republican Party in the presidential race.

"The great thing about politics is you get to start life over again after every cycle. But for right now, the world ends a week from (today)."

Is Stipanovich to blame if Martinez loses?

"I don't think he should blame Mac if he loses," Chiles said, "because he's a creature of Mac. That's like the pot blaming the potter."

Does Stipanovich get credit if Martinez wins?

"If he wins, it'll be my fault," Chiles said.