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Chiles is trying to change the way politics is played

Published Oct. 18, 2005

They all laughed last April when former Sen. Lawton Chiles, declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor, announced that he would limit contributions to his campaign to $100. Florida is, after all, the nation's fourth most populous state. It has eight media markets, and television advertising _ the life blood of politics today _ is expensive. Moreover, Gov. Bob Martinez, the embattled but combative Republican incumbent, could be counted on to raise and spend $6-million or $8-million or whatever it took.

But no one is laughing today. Chiles has not matched Martinez, but he has received a 62,000 contributions averaging $68 each, which factors out to more than $4-million or enough to run an advertising campaign that is at least competitive.

Chiles himself is a little surprised. In his 1976 campaign for the Senate, when he put a $10 ceiling on contributions, he received 38,000. This time he expects the total to run over 70,000 by election day. Buddy MacKay, the former congressman running for lieutenant governor with Chiles, was one of the doubters; now he is amazed to find $500,000 a week pouring into the campaign.

But what may be most important about Lawton Chiles' innovative approach to fund-raising is not just the fact that it has been successful in dollar terms. Instead, it may be the role it is playing in defining his campaign as an attempt to reform the political process that has dismayed so many voters. By limiting contributors to $100, Chiles is saying that he isn't running the usual mindlessly expensive exercise and won't be a governor beholden to special interests.

Chiles and MacKay are telling voters, in effect, that this is a very different campaign and it is time to put up or shut up on their complaints about the system. "Bob Martinez is not a bad person," Chiles tells an audience in Boca Raton, "He's locked into the system."

There are, of course, other more conventional issues more visible in the campaign. In one sense, it is a referendum on Martinez's stormy first term. In another, it is a measure of the effectiveness of the advertising campaign for Martinez that has lifted him from 15 to 20 points down to essentially even in the most recent published opinion surveys _ despite the fact that most voters still give his performance bad marks.

Nor is Chiles without baggage. He is a candidate who left the Senate in frustration and had a history of taking medication to treat emotional depression. He has cast some votes that allow him to be painted as more liberal than Florida voters have been embracing recently.

Chiles has some obvious assets. He is a politician with a well-established acceptability here, as he demonstrated by winning a primary in a landslide over a better-financed rival, Rep. Bill Nelson. And Democrats here know that if they don't reclaim the governorship from a candidate with as many scars as Martinez, they may not get as good an opportunity for a generation or longer.

And, although he is reluctant to exploit the issue, Chiles is benefiting from his identification as the abortion rights candidate _ a position that could be critical if the election is as close as polls today suggest.

But the high card for Chiles has to be the context of the politics of 1990. If the voters are as fed up with politics as usual as they seem to be saying, then here is a chance for them to make a statement.

If you elect me, Chiles tells his listeners, "we can change the way politics is played" all over the country. But the question is whether enough voters care enough to bother.

Tribune Media Services, Inc.