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A new low

It is bad enough that Jeb Bush has tried to scare voters into electing him governor of Florida. Now he's telling lies and using a Pinellas mother's grief to spread them.

It's hard to know which is worse _ lying about your opponent's record or shamelessly admitting it. Either way, Gov. Lawton Chiles correctly called the tactic reprehensible. But even that is not strong enough. Bush has rendered himself morally unfit to hold the office he seeks.

Bush has ripped a page out of his dad's dirty-campaign playbook to tar Chiles with the totally false accusation of failing to enforce the death penalty. It is a charge made more outrageous by the facts: Chiles actually has worked to reduce the time it takes to execute convicted murderers.

It is true that Chiles has signed far fewer death warrants than either of his Democratic or Republican predecessors _ 16 so far compared to 153 under Bob Graham and 139 under Bob Martinez. Yet executions are occurring at roughly the same rate under Chiles as they did under Martinez.

Chiles is simply following the recommendations of a Florida Supreme Court committee that urged him not to sign death warrants until a convict's initial appeals are finished. Signing a raft of warrants is political showboating that actually clogs the courts by touching off an unnecessary round of appeals.

The governor took one more step to hasten executions by cutting the time during which an inmate can appeal from two years to one.

None of that means much to a mother who still grieves the loss of a loved one. Wendy Nelson's daughter, Elisa, was 10 when she was kidnapped and murdered in a citrus grove in 1980. Larry Mann was sentenced to death in 1981 but remains on death row awaiting an appeal.

It is understandable that Nelson would feel that justice has not been served, but it is wrong to blame Chiles as she does in a TV commercial and in campaign fliers paid for by the Bush campaign. This is not the first time Bush has distorted Chiles' record on capital punishment. But this charge is beyond the pale. Even Bush acknowledges there was nothing Chiles could do to hasten Mann's execution.

"He has not been presented the opportunity to accelerate the process . . . on this guy," Bush said. Yet he maintains the charge is legitimate because Mann is a symbol.

Mann certainly is a symbol, in much the same way that Willie Horton was a symbol of the gutter tactics used in the 1988 presidential campaign that put George Bush in the White House.

Chiles has thrown a few low punches of his own during this nasty and bitter gubernatorial race. But Bush has taken his campaign to the sleazy depths once reserved for the backwoods of Panhandle politics.

It has become increasingly difficult for Bush to maintain the pose of moral rectitude he has tried to strike throughout this campaign. He should ask himself a question he put to Chiles during a recent debate.

Have you no shame?