The candidates for governor don't like to talk about abortion, but a new poll Wednesday indicated the issue could decide this race. The independent poll showed Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and Democrat Lawton Chiles still running even among voters overall, with 46 percent for Chiles, 45 percent for Martinez and 9 percent undecided.
Among those most likely to vote, Chiles was leading 51 percent to 45 percent. That showed Chiles ahead even when the poll's 3.5 percent margin of error was taken into account.
But the most telling findings in the poll, conducted for WTSP-Ch. 10, other television stations and several newspapers by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, concerned abortion:
Republican women are pulling away from both candidates and returning to the undecided column.
Nearly all the undecided voters favor abortion rights, which Martinez opposes.
A great many of Martinez's supporters misunderstand his position on abortion. They favor abortion rights and think Martinez does, too. When pollsters told them Martinez opposes abortion rights, a number of those surveyed said they would support Chiles instead.
Chiles clearly needs to make sure the voters know that he's the candidate who supports abortion rights, press secretary Julie Fletcher said.
Chiles, campaigning in Tampa, said the poll won't change his strategy. "I'll talk about it and intend to continue that," he said. "I don't intend to cut a commercial on it. . . . I've said before I don't feel comfortable in doing that.
"It just seems to me that if this is an issue as to whether somebody's going to vote one way or the other, they'd find out what our positions were."
As a rule, Chiles and Martinez don't mention abortion in their speeches. But they'll answer questions when asked, and they were asked during their debate in Orlando on Tuesday night.
"I do believe in right to life and I respect anyone who believes otherwise," Martinez said.
Chiles said he trusts the women of Florida to make their own decisions about abortion.
"I don't believe they should have to ask a governor or ask a state legislator about that decision," he said. "I think it's a very, very personal decision."
Both candidates are vulnerable on the abortion issue, which helps explain their silence.
Chiles voted in 1983 for a constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. He personally opposes abortion, but says he will leave existing law alone.
Martinez called a special session of the Legislature last year to try to restrict abortion rights in Florida and ran into a wall of angry opposition statewide. All his proposals died in committee, and his approval ratings plunged.
Still, the governor's campaign manager, J. M. "Mac" Stipanovich, said he's not surprised that many supporters favor abortion rights.
"It could be that most of the people of Florida aren't single-issue voters," he said.
He professed delight Wednesday with the overall poll results that showed Martinez and Chiles still deadlocked.
"I told the governor on Sunday that if the race was tied at this moment, he'd be re-elected," Stipanovich said, "that if he was down 3 or 4 (points), I didn't know what would happen. If he was down more than that, we'd probably lose."
The Chiles camp was happy, too. Press secretary Fletcher said Chiles' lead among likely voters shows Chiles can hold his core of support "no matter what Martinez is going to throw at us."
Martinez spent the day flying around Florida with Connie Mack, the Republican who replaced Chiles in the U.S. Senate two years ago.
The day was reminiscent of Mack's 1988 race against Buddy MacKay _ now Chiles' running mate _ whom Mack narrowly defeated with last-minute ads describing MacKay as a liberal.
"As we get down to the last six days of the campaign," Mack said during a stop in Tampa, "we'll see a conservative message from the governor versus a liberal message from your opponents. The other, liberal team believes in the old, failed policies of the past."
Chiles said he was dumbfounded that Martinez is trying to paint him as a political insider.
"There's a movement out there of "Let's throw the rascals out,' " Chiles said. "He wants to make me the rascal. He is the chief of the Little Rascals. He is the governor of this state."
Mack and Martinez ended the day in Clearwater at On Top of the World, the sprawling retirement condominium community. Several hundred people attended Republican Night and showered Martinez with applause and standing ovations.
Both candidates will be busy on the campaign trail again today. Chiles will be in St. Petersburg for an ice cream social with senior citizens in Williams Park at 1 p.m. Martinez will be in Orlando for a rally with President Bush.
_ Staff writers Bill Moss and Lucy Morgan contributed to this story.