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Chiles' native tongue speaks to new state

Gov. Lawton Chiles speaks Cracker about as well as any politician who ever roamed Florida's towns and cities in search of votes _ as he reminded listeners with tongue in cheek during his first debate with Jeb Bush.

The trouble is that Florida is growing more multilingual and diverse by the day.

The Democratic alliance of his Crackers and "yellow dog" Democrats to the north and the Roosevelt Democrats who retired to South Florida condos has been diluted by a steady flood of new residents from the eastern half of the United States and Latin America.

Cracker is the self-deprecating term Chiles fondly uses for native Floridians _ especially in the rural sections of North and Central Florida.

The Florida that the 64-year-old Chiles mastered in one election after the other for 35 years has been transformed.

Many of today's Florida voters don't remember his legendary ramble through the state in 1970 that gave him his nickname, "Walkin' Lawton," and his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Chiles now finds himself in the political fight of his life against Bush.

The 41-year-old son of a former president has raised $6-million, fielded a professional grass-roots network outflanking Lawton's casual network of pals and profited from a fierce anti-incumbent mood.

So lovable Lawton Chiles did something last week he has to do every now and then to stay in public office. He started brawling.

Some say this is getting about as nasty as any Chiles campaign on record. But his handlers reminded critics that he was pretty tough on former Gov. Bob Martinez in 1990.

"Go back and read the clips," said Jim Krog, a key Chiles adviser.

Chiles has hit Bush on his opposition to abortion and criticized him for his business dealings. In an ill-fated attempt to embarrass his opponent, Chiles even claimed _ erroneously _ that Bush failed to vote for his father in November 1992.

"It' a high-risk strategy, but it may be that there's not much choice," said political scientist Richard Scher of the University of Florida.

Scher notes this campaign goes beyond the "pepper and vinegar" of past Chiles campaigns and suggests that if this strategy backfires the election is over.

The governor released an ad this week reviving an old charge that Bush bought real estate with savings and loan money. The ad claims that taxpayers footed a $4-million bill when the S

&

L folded, while Bush made a $1-million profit. But the Republican says he had to help dig out of a mess left behind by a partner who defaulted on the loan.

The governor also said this week that Bush failed to pay Dade County fees and taxes for numerous corporations used in his real estate dealings.

While the Republican conceded he owed some unpaid fees, his supporters wondered what would drive Chiles to snoop through Bush's business records.

Bush said the strategy was a "disservice to voters" and hoped for a return to a philosophical debate.

"Chiles is on the ropes, but I think the voters, although they seem to favor Bush in the polls, will get cold feet in the voting booth," said political scientist Marsha Silverman of the University of Miami. "His fans of many years may turn out when they realize he's in trouble."

Political observers say Chiles' problems may be related to changes in Florida's demographics.

Republicans have gained strength along Florida's urban belt and in the North Florida counties who rebelled against the national Democratic Party.

Political scientist Susan McManus of the University of South Florida thinks Chiles started campaigning as a kind of warm folk hero, shaking hands and mingling with people. He was trying to connect with an electorate that had been transformed.

But when Bush began to collect a million dollars with each visit from his parents and avoided a nasty primary fight, Chiles suddenly found himself in trouble.

Scher says he believes Chiles is turning the spotlight on Bush's judgment and business ethics because the research shows Bush is vulnerable in that area.

"I can't believe they're doing this out of ignorance," Scher said. "And it's a little early for sheer desperation."

Some observers say Chiles is playing a high-risk strategy that could backfire if he comes off too harsh.

But others say he had to do something to make the poll numbers move as the calendar winds down to Election Day.

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