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Long shots, hot shots and the plaid factor

A lot of smart people around the state say there's no way Lawton Chiles can get re-elected as governor in 1994.

And a lot of other smart people say he won't even run.

I'm not so sure on either count.

Chiles has not given us a clue of what he'll do. But remember that he does not give a hoot about what other people say he ought to do.

And as far as his "certain" defeat: The election is 17 months away. Ridiculously early. Ask George Bush how much difference 17 months can make.

Remember, too, that Lawton Chiles, out on the road campaigning in that plaid shirt and those beat-up shoes, is a lot stronger opponent than the Chiles who has been stumbling around the Capitol.

So, even though all those smart people who say Chiles is finished just might be right, I would wait to place my bet.

What we do know for sure is that the rest of the Democratic Party is sort of hanging around, waiting for Chiles.

Suppose Chiles quits.

His lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay, might run in his place. So might Bob Butterworth, the state attorney general, an up-and-comer.

Another possibility is Betty Castor, the state education commissioner, if she doesn't try to unseat Connie Mack, our U.S. senator whose term is up next year.

(I will make a side bet with you that Castor does not run against Mack for the Senate and that she and Butterworth do not run against each other for governor.)

Bill Nelson from Melbourne, the guy Chiles beat in the Democratic primary in 1990, is making noise about running again. Maybe Bill Frederick, the former mayor of Orlando, will run.

So there are plenty of Democrats waiting in the wings. Waiting for Chiles.

The real action so far, however, is among our Republican friends, who do not have to wait politely for Chiles.

The Republicans, in fact, are raising what might be their strongest crop of candidates for governor ever.

There are two Republican candidates running openly so far: Jim Smith, the secretary of state, and Jeb Bush.

I could describe Bush as "former state secretary of commerce" or "former chair of the big-deal Dade County Republican Party," but the usual description is "son of former President George Bush."

There's a guy from Jacksonville, Ander Crenshaw, who everybody figures will run. He's the current president of the state Senate. Bill McCollum, a veteran member of Congress from central Florida, might be a good candidate.

A lot of people think Tom Gallagher, the state insurance commissioner, will run for governor. But he's keeping quiet for now. He has his hands full with the insurance crisis, and he doesn't need to go traipsing off running for governor until things calm down.

Jeb Bush has been working the Tampa Bay area this week, so I looked him up Tuesday morning and asked him why he wants to be governor. He is 40, a native of Texas and a Longhorn alumnus, who has lived in South Florida since 1980. He's in the real estate business.

I kind of expected him to give me the usual no-new-taxes, get-tough-on-crime line. Instead, he launched into an enthusiastic talk of how we need to rethink what the government is doing.

Wasn't that pretty much what Democrat Chiles promised us in 1990?

"Yes," Bush shot back. "And if he had succeeded, I wouldn't be running."

Right now I would rank Jim Smith the strongest in the Republican field. He is a veteran statewide politician with a lot of support. He is a practical guy who seems to want to do a practical job of running the government, instead of chanting silly slogans.

"It's going to be hard to get the warts off me," Smith said recently. "You're not going to see me going to contacts or parting my hair down the middle or wearing bow ties."

Careful, Jim.

I think my Republican friends overrate Crenshaw, the Senate president. They have Tallahassee-itis and think that because he is a big shot there, he is a big shot everywhere. Big shots in the Legislature have had no luck in getting elected to statewide office.

So, let's see. Jim Smith survives the Republican field and takes on Chiles, who beats back Bill Nelson in the Democratic primary. And the winner will be No, scratch all that. I said it was too early to make predictions.