A spate of negative advertising has put the race for governor into a dead heat just 12 days before voters go to the polls on Nov. 8.
One of two polls released Thursday shows 45 percent of the voters supporting Gov. Lawton Chiles and 45 percent supporting Republican Jeb Bush, with 10 percent undecided.
That's a substantial change in opinion that pollsters attribute to the negative advertising campaign launched by Chiles in the last 10 days. In the past few weeks most polls have shown Bush running 5 to 10 points ahead of Chiles, but the governor has obviously closed the gap.
Chiles continued the negative barrage with a new commercial released Thursday. It accuses Bush of associating with "deadbeats and crooks" and helping a client who "embezzled more than $230-million from Medicare _ senior citizens."
"It's a lie," Bush said after reviewing the text of the new ad. "It's just more of the same. I can't imagine what else he'll bring up. It's a distortion at its lowest. It's just wrong."
The tie between Bush and Chiles surfaced in a poll of 800 likely voters conducted by Associated Industries of Florida, the state's largest business lobby. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A second poll paid for by the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers and conducted by a pollster with Democratic ties shows Chiles ahead of Bush, 48 to 42.9 percent with 9.1 percent undecided. The Trial Lawyers poll of 517 registered voters by Kitchens, Powell & Kitchens has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error.
Both polls indicate the race for governor is a tossup.
"There is still the potential for either one to win," said pollster Jim Kitchens.
Kitchens believes a Bush ad that features the mother of a Pinellas County child who was murdered by a man who has remained on death row for 14 years without being executed appears to be having some effect on the campaign.
A Bush campaign spokesman noted the commercial had been on the air less than 24 hours before the poll was taken and discounted its impact on the poll. Chiles has labeled the ad a return to Willie Horton, but Bush says it was made merely to make the point that Chiles is soft on crime. He said comparisons to the Willie Horton ad are unfair.
The death row inmate in the ad is white, unlike Horton _ who was featured in an anti-Michael Dukakis ad distributed by an independent group that supported George Bush in 1988.
Bush said he is disappointed that there is "so much moral outrage" aimed at him over the ad when Chiles is allowed to "say outrageous things without getting a blip on the radar screen."
The dueling polls released an hour apart Thursday are being produced by two of the state's most bitter enemies: the trial lawyers and the business lobby. Both groups say they are merely releasing the information as a "public service," and will not endorse anyone in the race.
Trial Lawyers lobbyist Scott Carruthers denied his organization is attempting to influence the election for Chiles or any individual candidate.
Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries, refused to speculate on why the Trial Lawyers decided to get into the public polling business two weeks after Associated Industries began releasing weekly polling information.
That's an unusual position for Shebel, who is often called the "Darth Vader" of the state's lobbyists. Shebel has bitterly denounced the Trial Lawyers for years and was highly critical of them and Chiles earlier this year over a last-minute bill shepherded through the Legislature by the governor that will help lawyers file product liability suits against tobacco companies and other businesses.
Kitchens is also the pollster for Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, who is running ahead of Republican Jim Smith 42 to 39 in the Trial Lawyers poll.
The Associated Industries poll shows Crawford running behind Smith 41 to 35 percent, but both polls show Crawford has made substantial gains since he began broadcasting a negative ad that accuses Smith of shady back-room dealing.
Marian Johnson, director of political operations for Associated Industries, said television advertising seems to have the most impact on the races for governor and agriculture commissioner.
Bush isn't losing ground, Johnson said, but Chiles has made substantial gains, particularly among middle-aged, middle-income voters.
"But I'd give Chiles the advantage right now because he has moved up from 39 to 45 percent," Johnson said. "He appears to have momentum."
In other races polled by the two groups:
Attorney General Bob Butterworth leads Republican challenger Henry Ferro in both polls; 45 to 28 in the Associated Industries survey and 46 to 29 in the Trial Lawyers poll.
Comptroller Gerald Lewis maintains a narrow lead over Republican Bob Milligan: 38 to 33 in the Associated Industries poll, and 38 to 35 in the Trial Lawyers poll.
Republican Sandy Mortham narrowly leads Democrat Ron Saunders in both polls in the race for Secretary of State: 33 to 32 in the Associated Industries poll, and 31 to 28 in the Trial Lawyers poll.
Republican Frank Brogan leads Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson by 4 points in both polls: 36 to 32 in Associated Industries, and 38 to 34 in the Trial Lawyers poll.
Democrat Bill Nelson leads Republican Tim Ireland in both polls: 41 to 33 in the Associated Industries poll, and 45 to 32 with the Trial Lawyers.
U.S. Sen. Connie Mack holds the state's biggest lead, over Democrat Hugh Rodham, in both polls _ 60 to 26 in the Associated Industries poll, and 64 to 23 percent in the Trial Lawyers poll.