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Gubernatorial Debate

No one was wounded; no one even stumbled

Gov. Lawton Chiles acknowledges the standing ovation he received when introduced. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1998

Voters looking toward St. Petersburg for fireworks Tuesday night are probably still looking this morning.

Jeb Bush and Buddy MacKay launched no rockets in their final debate, and nothing exploded in anyone's face.

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That does not mean the final face-to-face meeting between Florida's candidates for governor was a bomb. What we have, entering the last two weeks of the race, is clarity.

MacKay, the Democrat who has spent most of the last 30 years in public office, accomplished about as much as one could reasonably expect. The lieutenant governor demonstrated he is not the stammering, confused candidate he appeared to be in their first debate. He presented a vigorous, articulate case for allowing him to essentially extend Gov. Lawton Chiles' administration.

Bush, the Republican who narrowly lost to Chiles four years ago, avoided any mistakes that would have allowed MacKay to eat into his considerable lead. More important, he presented himself as a different type of politician than he appeared to be in 1994.

Instead of extreme, he sounded conservative.

Over the course of the debate, Bush supported banning partial-birth abortions, requiring minors to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion and the belief that life begins at conception. He clarified his position on school prayer a bit but still supported it under certain conditions. He reaffirmed his support for vouchers for private school tuition, longer prison sentences for crimes involving guns and less government regulation.

Those are all positions embraced by many conservative voters from both political parties. But they did not sound extreme as Bush presented them in a generally thoughtful performance.

Four years ago, Bush sounded strident and disrespectful in the final debate. He called Chiles a liar and declared he had a list of 10 inmates Chiles had been slow to execute.

This time, he avoided such recklessness. Even Chiles acknowledged this is not the same man he faced.

"Bush has worked very hard on things," the outgoing governor said. "He is certainly better. Buddy was as good as I've ever seen him."

Right on both counts.

The television camera is never going to like MacKay as much as it likes Bush, who at 45 is 20 years younger. MacKay adroitly turned that into an asset.

"I feel like Harry Truman must have felt," he said in his opening statement. "He wasn't a slick media candidate bankrolled by big money. But you know what, he hung in there and he won."

MacKay is hanging in there, but he still needs an awfully big break to win.

Three new MacKay commercials, including one featuring Chiles, are hitting the airwaves. President Clinton is coming in for another badly needed fund-raiser next week, and appearances with Sen. Bob Graham are being planned for the final week before the election. New polls also indicate the race has narrowed a bit, just as Bush has long predicted.

But the burst of energy finally being seen in the MacKay camp has been surging through the Bush campaign for months. And nothing happened during the debate to pull the plug.

Every time MacKay saw an opening, Bush closed it.

For the first time, MacKay forced his opponent to take a position on a bill Chiles vetoed that would have allowed student-led prayer. Sort of.

Bush said he also would have vetoed it but would have worked with fellow Republicans in the Legislature to design a better prayer bill.

"This is the closest we have come to answer yet," MacKay said. "It sounded to me like in the first part you said you would support it and at the last part you said you would veto it."

Countered Bush: "I would have worked with the Legislature earlier, because I have a relationship with them. Your problem is you're left out. You're not part of the process up in Tallahassee. I would have a relationship with those guys and build the best possible (bill)."

Concluded MacKay, alluding to a government with no Democrat in the Governor's Mansion to check a Republican Legislature: "and that's the scariest thing you have said all night."

While entertaining, the exchange did not produce a 10-point swing in the polls.

What voters heard four years ago was a debate that swung the election and a memorable Old Florida line from Chiles: "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day."

What voters heard Tuesday night was Old Florida trying to stop the march of New Florida:

MacKay, the final Democrat in a line stretching from Reubin Askew to Graham to Chiles, the native Floridian who grew up in a small town and moved from the University of Florida to the Legislature to greater heights, the advocate of traditional Florida values such as abortion rights and public education.

Bush, the polished Republican willing to reach out to black and Jewish voters, the younger businessman who grew up somewhere else and moved to Florida to seek his fortune before seeking public office, the voice for conservative change in areas ranging from abortion restrictions to school vouchers.

In two weeks, we find out where Old and New Florida stand.


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