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MacKay should come out smiling

A few days ago, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay chatted by phone with Jim Krog. The garrulous manager for both Chiles-MacKay campaigns offered the beleaguered candidate for governor some sage political advice.

"I said, "Keep your smile on out there, and let's have some fun,' " Krog said.

There have not been many smiles from the MacKay camp.

Look at what's happened just in April. Campaign reports for the first three months of the year revealed Republican Jeb Bush raised more than $10 for every dollar raised by MacKay. Miami Herald Publisher David Lawrence Jr. flirted with running for the Democratic nomination. A dozen nervous Democrats held a private meeting in Tallahassee to discuss their concerns about the governor's race. Five House Democrats, including Democratic Leader Buzz Ritchie, endorsed one of MacKay's opponents in the primary, former Sen. Rick Dantzler.

MacKay's response?

Silence or terse declarations that he still will be the Democratic nominee and defeat Bush in November. That is not the best way to inject life into a campaign.

In the summer of 1990, Bill Nelson was getting under Lawton Chiles' skin. Nelson, who had been running for governor long before Chiles and MacKay sauntered into the race, started holding frequent news conferences to question Chiles' business deals and his financial disclosure forms.

Fed up, Chiles showed up uninvited one afternoon as Nelson was picking over another dusty real estate deal.

"If you have decided that you want to be governor so bad you have to destroy my character . . . it's pitiful," he told Nelson.

It was wonderful theater. It turned a negative into a positive for Chiles. And it sent voters a clear message that there was plenty of life in the retired U.S. senator who had acknowledged he was taking medication for depression.

MacKay must have forgotten what he saw as he stood in the doorway that afternoon.

When Nelson and those other Democrats met last weekend, reporters and television cameras were outside the Tallahassee hotel. Think how MacKay would have looked if he would have confidently walked in and made his pitch to the group that he indeed is the Democrats' best hope. Or suppose he brought Chiles with him, and they made the case together that MacKay is the next natural link in the chain of Democrats in the Governor's Mansion. LeRoy Collins to Reubin Askew to Bob Graham to Lawton Chiles to Buddy MacKay, with a couple of Republicans in between.

Instead, MacKay wasn't even in Tallahassee. He was in his hometown of Ocala, and he did not make himself available to reporters.

When he finally surfaced Monday in St. Petersburg, he still was in no mood to talk. Efforts to start a casual conversation about the meeting in Tallahassee were met by an abrupt, "I don't have any comment."

This is not to say the answer to MacKay's troubles is to imitate Chiles. MacKay would look as silly in a coonskin cap as Michael Dukakis did in a tank. But MacKay has not been alone on the ballot since 1988, when he narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to Connie Mack. Florida has 2-million more registered voters than it did then. MacKay cannot assume most voters are familiar with his name, his Florida roots and his distinguished career in the Legislature, the U.S. House and as lieutenant governor.

Doug Heyl, an itinerant consultant brought in to manage MacKay's campaign, makes several observations about the state of politics today that make sense.

He says issues are more important, and there's no question Floridians pay attention to where candidates stand on issues ranging from education to the death penalty. He says political party affiliation is less important than it used to be, and he says the size of a candidate's bank account is less important because of public campaign financing that balances the scales.

But Heyl also claims politics "is much less about personality" than it used to be. Floridians developed warm feelings for Chiles in part because he walked the length of the state during his first U.S. Senate campaign in 1970. Graham has enhanced his public image over the years through work days in all sorts of jobs. Heyl suggests such gimmicks and the human connections they make with voters are anachronisms.

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that Floridians care as much about personality as they do about issues. Most voters do not pore over issue papers, and positions taken by candidates during campaigns are not the sole factor in deciding which one to support. Candidates also do not take a position on every issue they will face if they are elected. Some who are elected have been known to forget their campaign pledges.

Voters make character judgments. They want to trust their elected leaders and feel a personal connection, even if it is only through a television ad or a televised debate.

Bush says he learned that lesson from 1994, when he narrowly lost to Chiles and MacKay after Democrats portrayed him as a scary, unknown quantity.

"People want to know who sits behind that desk and about that person," Bush said recently. "Ideas mean a lot, but people need to know who you are and what motivates you."

Now people need to know about MacKay and what motivates him. He doesn't need to walk the state or put on a hard hat and work at a construction site. He needs to publicly, forcefully make his case to doubters instead of quietly stewing about their disloyalty.

And smile more.