ORLANDO, FLA. -- Retiring Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) made his reputation by walking across Florida, and the other day he gave an old set of boots to Democratic Rep. Buddy MacKay.

"In some cultures, they pass the torch," MacKay has been telling voters. "In Florida, they give you a pair of used boots and send you to Crestview," a town in the far reaches of the Florida panhandle near where Chiles began his hike 18 years ago.

MacKay, a four-term House member and veteran of the state legislature, would like nothing better than for Florida voters to consider him the continuation of the state's Democratic tradition, one that has spawned such moderate-but-progressive leaders as former governors LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew, and senators such as Chiles and Bob Graham.

But Florida today is rapidly changing. It is the nation's fastest-growing state, with 6 million voters, and much of its burgeoning population would be hard-pressed to remember Askew, much less Collins. It has voted Republican in four of the last five presidential elections, and MacKay's polls show Republican presidential nominee George Bush with a 25-point lead over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, the largest lead in any of the big states.

The state has a Republican governor, a Republican on the elected Cabinet and two GOP senators were sent to Washington in recent years.

And MacKay, for all his talk of tradition, is locked into a bruising battle with fellow Rep. Connie Mack III (R), who in some ways is the epitome of the new Florida. Like thousands of other Floridians, Mack was born in the North, lives in a part of the state that was barely populated 50 years ago, once was a Democrat and has grown more conservative with each passing year.

Just how conservative will be pivotal to the outcome. MacKay, an Ocala lawyer and citrus grower, tells voters in his southern drawl that the race is a choice between "the mainstream and the ex-treme."

Mack has made his strategy clear in commercials that carry a smirking tag line: "Hey Buddy, you're liberal."

That the race is so close -- MacKay says his polls show him ahead, but public polls and those conducted for Mack show it to be a dead heat -- is puzzling to those outside the state who see Bush's enormous lead. But politicians in both parties say Florida voters traditionally are independent, and the trend is increasing.

"This is just not a coattails state," said Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican who represents central Florida. "In this state, split voting has almost become the norm," said MacKay campaign manager Greg Farmer.

Still, it is clear that Bush's strength will help Mack to some degree. "I'd be a hell of a lot better off if Bush was unopposed," MacKay said. Mack makes it clear in television commercials and in debates that he supports Bush and MacKay supports Dukakis, while MacKay usually adds that the Massachusetts governor was not his first choice for president.

One advantage for MacKay is a united party. After a negative and bitter primary, MacKay's runoff opponent, Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter, endorsed MacKay and campaigned for him. Graham and others say they believe that the state's 54-to-39 Democrat-to-Republican ratio, while drastically reduced from previous years, still provides a Democrat an edge. "Except when there have been lacerations, Democrats win," Graham said.

Mack and MacKay were first elected to Congress in the same year, 1982. Cornelius McGillicuddy III, 48, is a former Cape Coral banker who prefers the name of his famous baseball grandfather, Connie Mack. He has been aligned in Congress with Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the Conservative Opportunity Society. MacKay, one of the founders of the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Leadership Council, has made a name for himself on budget matters and his willingness to confront the House leadership on reducing the deficit.

Mack contends that MacKay is not a moderate, but a liberal unacceptable to the state's conservative Democrats. "The big difference between the two of us is Buddy MacKay wants to increase the scope of government," Mack said in an interview. One of his television commercials shows MacKay discussing taxes he would be willing to increase to balance the budget, while Mack has taken the no-new-taxes pledge.

Asked how MacKay, generally recognized by independent groups as a moderate, can be described as a liberal, Mack said, "When you vote against the MX {missile}, against the B1 {bomber}, against the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, you're taking exactly the same positions that Michael Dukakis takes."

"Whatever I am, it's what I was 10 years ago, 20 years ago," MacKay responded, pointing out that Mack is a former Democrat who, when elected as a moderate Republican in 1982, agreed with MacKay in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. "He passed me in a blur on his way to the far fringes of his party," MacKay said.

MacKay has won the endorsement of almost every major newspaper in the state, and he and other Democrats are portraying Mack as a doctrinaire right-winger who puts his "ideological agenda" before the needs of Florida. Graham described him last week as "an ideological whacko."

They point to votes by Mack against the continuation of the Superfund program to clean up toxic wastes and increased funding for the Older Americans Act where Mack's opposition to government spending put him at odds with the rest of the Florida's 18-member congressional delegation. In a state where growth has endangered the environment, MacKay is playing up the Environmental Action Coalition's designation of Mack as one of the "Dirty Dozen," the 12 members of the House and Senate who most often voted "wrong" on environmental issues.

Mack aides estimate that the campaign will have spent $5.5 million by Election Day, compared with $3.5 million for MacKay. But the two have spent approximately the same amount in the closing weeks of the campaign, with weekly television budgets approaching $500,000.