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Chiles in battle for political life, changes his ways

He had opened the debate by accusing his young challenger, Jeb Bush, of having "maligned and distorted my record by your fabrications and demagoguery." In turn, he had heard Bush ask witheringly, "Don't you feel a sense of shame" about the negativism of your campaign?

When their tough, personal 60-minute slugfest was over, Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, 64, unwound at a restaurant in the Disney World complex, mulling what had happened to politics in the 34 years since his first legislative race.

"I have never seen the public like this," he said. "So impatient, so unwilling to listen. The gridlock in Washington is raising such negative feelings. Of course, politicians have been running against the system for a long time, but it has finally caught on. People really think it's beyond fixing. Rush Limbaugh mocks everyone. There are no heroes out there."

Chiles has never lost a political race _ and he may survive the tough challenge the second son of former President Bush is throwing at him. But if he does, it will be at the cost of the kind of politics he has tried to practice all his life. And he, like others in both parties, is miserable about being sucked into the muck.

A reformer for his 10 years in the Florida Legislature, Chiles became a kind of folk hero for the way he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1970. He limited contributions to $100, and he strapped on hiking boots and set out on foot to meet the voters across the state.

"Walkin' Lawton" stayed in the Senate for 18 years, retiring in 1988 because of the burnout he experienced as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, smashing his head against the wall of rising federal deficits. Revived by his move back home, he beat the incumbent Republican governor in 1990 and set out to do in Tallahassee what his friend, Bill Clinton, would try to do in Washington, two years later: redefine activist, progressive government for the fiscally strapped 1990s.

Chiles' effort gave almost equal emphasis to restructuring government agencies and restraining budgets, and to investing funds in programs aimed at preventing teenage pregnancies and school dropouts, moving women off welfare and reducing crime.

Like Clinton, he has had mixed success. The Legislature approved some of his plans, thwarted others, and left room for critics to say that, despite his rhetoric, he was a tax-raising career politician out of touch with a conservative and increasingly Republican electorate. All of this Bush has said in an effective, aggressive campaign, in which he has also tried to outline his own version of "a different kind of government," one putting far more trust in the private sector and voluntary groups to meet social needs.

The two men are actually quite articulate apostles of sharply contrasting policies. But you wouldn't know it from their campaigns.

The ads are increasingly negative and personal.

Between swallows of black-bean soup, Chiles recounted how the campaign came to take this tone. "A couple weeks ago, my people said to me, "You're talking about what you have done in office, but nobody is listening.'


Chiles said he wanted to counter Bush's criticism of his record by citing some of his accomplishments. "But my people say, "Quit talking about health care; it doesn't raise a blip (in the polls).'


Chiles' comments reminded me of a similar conversation I'd had with Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., a dozen years ago, when he was in a tough campaign. His advisers, Danforth said, told him three weeks before the election, "You can stay positive (in your ads) if you want to, senator; it's your decision. But it's our responsibility to tell you that if you do, you will lose."

Danforth said he thought about all the people who had contributed to his campaign and who were out working for him, and "I decided I could not throw the election to satisfy my own scruples." Chiles, who has a similar distaste for these tactics, has come to the same conclusion.

Washington Post Writers Group