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Chiles bides his time

In December 1987, only nine months before the primaries, Lawton Chiles decided he didn't want to be a U.S. senator any longer. It wasn't until April 1990, less than four months before the primaries, that Chiles decided he wanted to be governor. Many of those who remember are nervous.

Among them are the fellow Democrats _ including Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Education Commissioner Betty Castor _ who want to run for governor next year in the event Chiles doesn't, along with former U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson and former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick who may run even if Chiles does. Now is not too early to begin organizing a campaign in a state this large, and the longer they have to wait for Chiles' decision the harder it would be.

"I believe Lawton's modus operandi is to wait until very late until telling anybody," says Nelson, who lost the 1990 Democratic nomination to Chiles' late-starting challenge. ". . . I think everything on this one is going to break very, very late. That's to the Republicans' advantage if the Republicans are able to unify."

Frederick, who had promised not to run against Chiles, has been rumored to be contemplating running after all _ as an independent. It could, of course, be a bluff.

"I'm still examining that," he said this week. "In view of my friendship and my commitment to the governor I need to sit down and have some discussions with him. I am giving some thought to asking for an appointment to do that."

If Frederick is to run as an independent, he hasn't much time to wait before starting to gather the 196,255 petition signatures it would take to get him and his running mate on the ballot. Even a conventional candidacy, for someone like Frederick who hasn't run statewide before, takes time.

"Very few people could make a race," said Frederick, "if they don't freeze some of their friends and supporters in place by the fall of this year, and prudence and traditional history would be that you make an announcement by the current time."

The Republicans are under no presumed obligation to defer to the incumbent and several are already organizing campaigns. Yet even they're nervous _ for fear that Chiles won't run. They assume he'd be the easiest Democrat to beat.

"The best way to get him to run, which is what Republicans dearly want, is to attack him," says Bill Bryant, who chairs the party's Policy Forum. "I expect the insults will be heaped on, if he ever thinks of not running . . . He's a very stubborn person and he's going to do what he wants to do, but I think resistance and acrimony make him more stubborn."

That insight is probably correct. There are Democrats, some of them diehard Chiles loyalists, who share it.

As of now, it looks like Chiles will run. But he still isn't saying. It's almost as if he's enjoying the suspense. During a brief conversation last week, just before leaving for a short vacation, Chiles wouldn't even say when he plans to make and announce his decision.

If things were going well for him, he could wait as long as he pleased. There would be no ambitious Democrats and fewer Republicans hinting it's time for him to go. The polls have been dismal, though, despite the lack of any major scandal on his watch and the passage of his health care bill. Chiles' liability has been his failure to successfully project any other focus _ beyond new taxes that he didn't get _ for his administration.

It's not just the Republicans who would make taxes an issue. Frederick, if he runs, would call for a flexible spending freeze and a moratorium on new taxes.

If Chiles cared what others say, he'd quit. But that's never been his way, and it has been his luck that the others were always wrong. They were wrong when they told him he couldn't get re-elected to the Senate with a self-imposed $10 (no misprint) contribution limit in 1976 or the $100 ceiling under which he faced a more serious challenge in 1982. And when they were really, really wrong was when they tried to talk the little-known state legislator out of his plan to walk the length of the state in the now-famous race that first got him elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970. It was Florida's first successful campaign gimmick.

Jack Peeples, a member of the Chiles inner circle then and now, says no one, not even Chiles, expected him to win that race. The goal, he said, was simply to run a strong third, putting Chiles in good shape to run for governor in 1974.

"I never did anything in my life I didn't expect to win," says Chiles. "I never got in any race I didn't expect to win. They may not have, but I sure did." That explains, he joked, "the insanity I have."

Says Peeples: "When he won, he forgot he wasn't supposed to."

The so-called smart money says the Chiles luck has finally run out. Maybe it has.

But I wouldn't bet the store on it.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.