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Connor's past may help his candidacy

One of the most intriguing elements of the 1994 governor's race is the unsung candidacy of Ken Connor.

The Tallahassee lawyer isn't one of the usual suspects to run for governor. He is best known for his work against abortion, and that's a mixed blessing.

One of his supporters, her voice shaking with rage, scolded me at length the other day because she thought The Media were pigeon-holing Connor as a single-issue candidate. Connor has expressed similar fears.

In fact, Connor speaks quite ably about crime, welfare and the economy, and he recognizes that abortion won't be a big issue this year. But his service as president of Florida Right to Life is a good point of reference for voters, the same way early stories about Jeb Bush always mentioned his father.

Connor need not duck his past. It may be his greatest strength.

As far as we know, Connor's anti-abortion activities always were honorable. He worked through legal channels, lobbying the Legislature and filing court briefs.

Recent court rulings have thwarted most of his goals; abortion apparently is here to stay. But Connor is emerging as the candidate most willing to talk about morality and family along with prisons and food stamps, while other Republicans are gun-shy about any discussion of values.

"I think it's important that we recognize that our problems are multidimensional _ they're social, they're moral, they're economic," Connor said in an interview.

"The Republicans just want to talk _ in the interest of unity _ about the economic issues. Some people say because of my right-to-life position, I'm one-dimensional. I say baloney. Those who only want to deal in one sphere are one-dimensional."

His audiences seem hungry to hear a candidate speak about issues in the context of morality. They emphasize their attraction to Connor's values as well as his stands on crime or economics.

Mark Donohoe, a St. Petersburg broker, is typical. He met Connor through the anti-abortion fight, but he knows abortion laws are beyond the reach of any single elected official.

"What can this guy really do about abortion?" Donohoe said. "If I were along just because of that, I'd be wasting my time."

Instead, he mentions Connor's service as chairman of the state Ethics Commission. "He's one of the most ethical people I ever met. People respect this man even if they're not for him."

Connor deftly avoids the usual pitfalls in discussing family values. He isn't strident or judgmental. He shares his vision of a secure, more moral society without insulting half his audience.

You could hear a pin drop when he tells supporters he believes there is a clear difference between right and wrong, that not all ideas and lifestyles are equally valid, that family is not however one chooses to define it.

"We ought to affirm the sanctity of truth, the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of the family and the sanctity of innocent human life," he says.

Connor is striking at the heart of the voters' chief worry, in my opinion. They are afraid about the decline of society, afraid of the future for themselves and their kids. The polls may say crime dominates political discussion, but I think crime is just the latest focus for those deeper fears.

Connor's specific statements about crime, welfare, business regulation and legal reform must wait for another day. Just know that Connor should not be written off as a minor candidate.

He doesn't have much money, about $260,000 so far. He won't take money from lobbyists or political action committees so he won't be beholden to special interests. And he eagerly awaits public financing _ that's tax money to match his contributions _ in July.

But he has another strength. Connor has put together a database with 100,000 names _ all potential supporters.

Keep an eye on this guy.

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