TALLAHASSEE -- Lawton Chiles is to Florida politics what orange juice is to breakfast -- a natural combination.
But almost inexplicably, a majority of Floridians, who have shown no abatement in their fondness for the state's favorite beverage, seem to have lost their taste for Chiles.
The 64-year-old Democratic governor is in the midst of his most difficult re-election campaign. A 34-year political career, which once seem the embodiment of bedrock populism, is in jeopardy of ending in defeat and rejection.
Chiles is the underdog again. It hasn't been so since 1970, when a lanky country lawyer from Lakeland walked across the state in a longshot bid for the U.S. Senate.
His opponents called the 91-day, 1,003-mile journey a gimmick. But Chiles, then a state senator, used the publicity from the walk to best a former state House speaker, a former governor and a Republican congressman. He also earned the permanent sobriquet "Walkin' Lawton."
This time, Chiles is the powerful incumbent on the ropes. The one-time 40-year-old giant killer is now facing a 41-year-old political upstart named Jeb Bush.
It has been a frustrating campaign for Chiles, who is trying to beat a younger opponent who has never held an elected office and who Chiles does not believe is seasoned enough to lead the nation's fourth-largest state.
"Let me tell you what I feel," Chiles said in an Orlando debate. "I love the state of Florida. I have given my life (to) serving the state. It is not a toy. It is not a place to allow somebody to experiment, to start a political career with no experience. I will do everything I can to see that Florida elects the proper person."
But Chiles is vulnerable for a number of reasons - not the least of which is that he is facing the well-financed son of a former president who remains popular in Florida.
Also longevity in political office is not much help in a state whose population and electorate shift so dramatically with continued growth.
The 1990 census showed two-thirds of Florida's population was not native born, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. That lack of long-term residents is reflected in the electorate, she said.
"You've got a whole bunch of voters that really are pretty unfamiliar with his past record as a senator and still are not terribly familiar with his record as governor," MacManus said.
Another fundamental change is the growth of the Republican Party. In 1970, the Democrats were dominant. Now, the two parties are near parity. The Democrats hold the majority, but they fell beneath 50 percent of the electorate for the first time this year.
Added to that mixture is a surly electorate, ready to toss out many office-holders. It is a mood not just prevalent in Florida, but across the nation, endangering other Democratic governors such as Ann Richards in Texas and Mario Cuomo in New York.
"I think people are venting their frustrations,' said Charles Whitehead, a Panama City car dealer and former state Democratic Party chairman. "They're mad at government. They're mad about immigration. They're mad about taxes...and they blame it on the incumbents."
Despite those obstacles and unfavorable polls, Chiles should not be counted out, according to those who know him best. They say beneath Chiles' folksy veneer lurks an adroit politician who has never lost a race.
Sylvan "Sonny" Holtzman, a Miami lawyer who has been a key supporter since the 1970 campaign, said the governor seems to be at his best when the odds are against him.
"I personally think that he likes to come from that direction more than any other," Holtzman said.
"I always try to run like I'm the underdog," he said. "You never try to take any race for granted."
In a financial sense, Chiles has always been at a disadvantage. In 1970, he limited his campaign contributions to $10, knowing he wasn't going to attract the big dollars anyway.
But he continued that self-imposed limit in his 1976 Senate re-election campaign, enhancing his image as a reform-minded, populist politician.
The limit rose to $100 in 1982 where it has stayed since.
Critics say the self-imposed cap is just another Chiles ploy. But his fund-raisers say the limit has helped Chiles develop a large network of supporters.
"You have to reach out and get people involved, that's the secret," said Holtzman, who is credited with raising more than $800,000 for Chiles in 1990.
The $100 limit faced its toughest test in Chiles' 1990 gubernatorial campaign when he challenged Gov. Bob Martinez, who was raising money under the then legal limit of $3,000.
Martinez outraised and outspent Chiles -- $10.6 million to $5.2 million. But Chiles beat the Republican incumbent by a 57-43 percent voting margin.
Once in office, Chiles spearheaded a sweeping campaign-finance reform law that now imposes a $500 limit on contributions to statewide candidates and legislative candidates -- one of the strictest limits in the major states.
The law also provides matching funds to statewide candidates who agree to cap their expenditures - $5 million for a gubernatorial race and $2 million for Cabinet contests.
Chiles, who has kept his personal $100 limit, said the public financing law has reduced the influence of lobbyists and special-interest groups in the campaigns.
Chiles' commitment to campaign spending limits and other government reforms has not gone unnoticed by voters.
"The people like Chiles," said Marian Johnson of Associated Industries of Florida. "They definitely believe that his intentions are honorable."
A mid-October poll by AIF showed 57 percent of the voters viewed Chiles favorably, compared to 51 percent for Bush. Chiles' unfavorability ratings were 39 percent to Bush's 34 percent.
"I think that when all the fluff is brushed away from the different candidates, Chiles sort of stands there alone as a person that a majority of Floridians know for a fact is honest, you can't question his integrity," Whitehead said.
But at the same time, while voters think highly of Chiles as a person, they are less charitable in reviewing his performance as governor.
Some 58 percent of them say he's doing "only fair" or "poor" compared to 40 percent who rate his performance as "good" or "excellent," according to the AIF survey.
Chiles' affection for politics began in Polk County, where Chiles was born in Lakeland on April 3, 1930.
His father was a hard-working railroad man and a milkman during The Depression. One his goals in life was to make sure Chiles and his sister went to college.
After graduating from high school in 1948, Chiles enrolled at the University of Florida, where his nickname was "Smiley" and he was active in student politics. He also met a young woman from Coral Gables, Rhea Grafton, who had withdrawn her sorority from Chiles' student party when she believed that women were not being offered enough high-level posts.
Chiles married her in 1951. They have four children and 10 grand-children.
Although publicity shy, Rhea Chiles remains one of the governor's key advisors. Her role surfaced again in the recent campaign when she helped to convince Chiles to pull an abortion ad that she felt misstated his position.
After a 21-month stint as a U.S. Army artillery officer, Chiles earned a law degree from Florida and returned to his hometown to practice law in 1955. Within three years, Chiles began his political odyssey.
The 28-year-old attorney went after state Rep. Roy Surles Jr., chairman of the Finance and Taxation Committee. His grassroots campaign style quickly emerged.
"We really beat him by knocking on doors," Chiles recalled. " ;Rhea went down one side of the street, and I went down the other."
Chiles toiled quietly in the state Legislature for the next 12 years, moving to the state Senate in 1966. At the same time, he was developing his law firm and making investments that would give him the financial freedom to make politics his lifetime vocation.
Along with a business partner, Chiles bought property that he leased to Red Lobster restaurants in Lakeland, Daytona Beach, Tampa and St. Petersburg. The investment has been lucrative over the years, yielding the governor $270,000 in income last year alone.
Chiles has a net worth of $1.6 million, with much of his money invested in land and houses, including homes and retreats in Tallahassee, Gadsden County and North Carolina. His most recent purchase was a 4,200-square-foot home on 40 acres north of Tallahassee for $850,000.
After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1970, Chiles developed a reputation as a moderate Southern Democrat who wasn't particularly ideological and seemed to get along with his colleagues.
Over 18 years, his legislative achievements included legislation opening up federal agencies and requiring the Senate to hold most of its meetings in public. The law was patterned after Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
Chiles also gained national attention for probing government waste, such as questionable meat purchases for the military. He led efforts to limit government support of presidential libraries. His record on environmental and education issues was strong.
Chiles promoted anti-drug legislation, including the Senate's 1986 omnibus anti-drug bill. He was the first senator to talk about the problems of "crack" cocaine on the Senate floor.
He became known as champion for both the elderly and the very young, advocating more funding for pre-natal care. His concern over infant mortality has carried over into his term as governor.
For many years, however, Chiles was not a real player in the Senate, either because he didn't have enough seniority or because the Republicans were in charge.
His time to shine came in 1987, when the Democrats regained control and Chiles became the Budget Committee chairman.
But in late 1987, Chiles shocked the Florida political world by abruptly announcing he would not seek re-election. It later was revealed that Chiles was battling severe depression -- which he called "the blacks" -- that was eventually treated by taking Prozac.
Chiles appeared ready for retirement, settling down in Tallahassee. He had a job at a Florida State University research institute and was teaching a course on government at the University of Florida.
But in early 1990, former U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay, a longtime Chiles ally from Ocala, convinced the former senator to enter the governor's race. MacKay ran as his lieutenant governor.
Prozac immediately became an issue. But Chiles dispelled those concerns by releasing his medical records and by his performance on the campaign trail.
He easily beat former U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson in the Democratic primary and then swept by Gov. Martinez in the general election.
Few governors have come into office with higher expectations than Chiles. Much of it was fueled by his sweeping campaign promises to "reinvent" government. He even likened his coming administration to "Camelot. "
Four years later, though, it is difficult to convince voters that dramatic changes have occurred in Tallahassee.
Chiles faced many obstacles in his quest to reshape state government - a recession, a hurricane and a recalcitrant Legislature.
He initially faced an economic downturn that forced more than $2 billion in cutbacks and spending reductions.
Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, prompting an unprecedented reaction by the state.
Chiles has constantly had to battle the Senate Republicans, who in 1992 ended up with half of the chamber's 40 seats allowing them to derail many of the governor's proposals, including an ambitious health care plan to provide coverage to more than 2 million uninsured Floridians.
But Chiles has had his victories. He points to his Blueprint 2000 education program that gives parents and teachers more control of local schools, the decentralization of the social service system and two pilot projects on welfare reform.
He has overhauled a burdensome workers' compensation insurance system and has provided more health insurance coverage to small businesses.
He backed a 24,000-bed expansion of the state prison system. Prisoners are serving more than 43 percent of their sentences, up from 33 percent in the prior Republican administration. Chiles said the average time served will rise to 75 percent for new prisoners next year.
However, the results of many of the governor's initiatives are less apparent, opening him up to charges that he has fallen short of his 1990 campaign promises.
"To try to do the things we are doing, it not only takes a while, it is hard for people to see the results," Chiles said. "We are a generation that wants to see instant results, instant gratification."
But Chiles bristles at Bush's contention that his Democratic opponent is a "failed" governor promoting a time-worn "liberal" agenda.
He exhibited some of that fiery indignation when he returned to Lakeland's Munn Park for a mid-October political rally. As a boy, Chiles first became fascinated with politics by watching candidates work the crowd at the downtown park. Among his favorites was Spessard Holland, a former U.S. senator and governor who was a Polk County native.
"John Ellis has had 18 months to call me soft on crime and ultra liberal, against the death penalty," Chiles told the hometown crowd. "It has been the most negative thing anybody has ever said about me.
"I'm up to bat now. I'm ready. It's my turn and let me tell you what, come the November race we're going to beat the hell out of 'em."
--Bill Rufty of The Ledger contributed to this report
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