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The one and only gubernatorial debate

For voters who had hoped to hear the gubernatorial nominees debate, tonight's the night. The only night. Most CBS television affiliates will carry the one-hour confrontation between Gov. Bob Martinez and challenger Lawton Chiles beginning at 7 p.m. In the Tampa Bay area, that's WTVT, Channel 13. In Tallahassee, the CBS affiliate will show Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy instead, leaving the informed citizen market to an ABC affiliate, WTXL-TV Channel 27. It reflects poorly on Martinez that this will be the public's only opportunity to compare the candidates side by side. Chiles has been willing and eager, but Martinez _ who sounded like a raging bull on the subject before the Democrats nominated their candidate _ turned into Ferdinand the flower-sniffer when he saw who his opponent would be. The University of Florida's Blue Key offered a forum. No thanks, said Martinez. He rejected the League of Women Voters as a sponsor, ostensibly because it supports abortion rights and couldn't be fair to him. Claiming a scheduling conflict, he stood up the American Association of Retired Persons, so Chiles had the program to himself. The 11-station Florida News Network offered a debate at Disney World. Martinez turned that down too. Come to think of it, he had also refused to debate any of his opponents in the Republican primary.

Tonight's debate, the only one he accepted, is not in prime time, conflicts with many people's dinner hours and is up against some popular programs on other networks. Why is Martinez so afraid to share a platform with Chiles? Perhaps those voters who do watch will be able to deduce a reason.

Debate between opposing candidates is the highest form of campaigning, and it is free. But it's not the way in which Martinez prefers to use television. He'd rather pay for his exposure, 30 seconds at a time, so that he can control the message. "Any time I feel like it," Martinez campaign manager Mac Stipanovich has boasted, "I can write myself a check and go on the air and bury any issue I want to bury." That's politics, but it is not good citizenship. Whether it is good politics is for the voters to say. They'll have their turn a week from today.

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