MIAMI, SEPT. 4 -- Former senator Lawton Chiles, who shunned big-money politics and negative campaigning, won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida today in a landslide.
Chiles, 60, one of Florida's most popular politicians, survived a negative personal attack by his opponent, Rep. Bill Nelson, who questioned Chiles's medical fitness for office and repeatedly suggested that several of Chiles's personal business dealings were improper.
"People should count more than money," Chiles said in a victory speech at his Tallahassee headquarters. Referring to his refusal to accept campaign contributions larger than $100, Chiles added that he felt "that people would join us if we limited our contributions."
So great was Chiles's lead that Nelson conceded defeat and telephoned Chiles to congratulate him before even half of the vote was counted. Later, with 98 percent of the votes tallied, Chiles maintained his wide majority with 70 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Nelson. The two plan to appear at a unity rally in Tallahassee Wednesday.
In the Republican primary, Gov. Bob Martinez, completing his first term, ignored four minor challengers and easily won renomination.
Chiles's entry into the race enlivened an otherwise stultifying campaign in the nation's fourth-largest state. Until then, insiders in both parties looked forward with little enthusiasm to a contest between Martinez and Nelson.
Martinez, wounded by his own series of political blunders over taxes and abortion, was struggling to rehabilitate an image rating so bad that it was called, at one point, "radioactive." On the other hand, Nelson, who flew in the space shuttle in 1986, could not quite escape his image of a "Ken doll" -- well-coiffed, trim but without the substance of Chiles. Early in the campaign, a statewide magazine dubbed him "the Empty Suit." The nickname stuck.
Chiles, who quit the Senate at the end of his third term in 1988, claiming he was burned out by the endless, unproductive budget deliberations, on April 12 emerged from retirement, announced that local politics was where the action was, and immediately began campaigning for governor. He soared to the top of the polls, displacing both Nelson and Martinez as the most popular candidate in Florida.
While the Democrats tangled, Martinez, who planned to spend $12 million on his reelection campaign, appealed directly to Florida's voters on television with a series of political advertisements highlighting his achievements. When pro-death-penalty ads were the rage, Martinez aired one featuring serial killer Ted Bundy, who was executed last year.
Last month, attempting to humanize his image, Martinez made a dramatic apology for what he said were his first-term "mistakes." The governor spent $5 million on television in the primary campaign, and public opinion polls taken just before today's balloting showed that money was not wasted. He now trails Chiles by just a few percentage points.
In the Democratic contest, with few philosophical differences on the issues, the campaign centered on Chiles's health and Nelson's money machine. Few expected six-term congressman Nelson to cover enough ground to close on Chiles's 34-point lead.
Chiles acknowledged early in the race that he had taken the antidepressant Prozac to treat depression. Nelson, 47 and fit as an astronaut, made health and fitness sub-themes of his campaign and said it was time for Florida to have a "new generation of leadership."
Chiles, who tried to make a national issue out of big-money campaigns, raised just under $2 million and suggested that Nelson, with his $6 million treasury, would be beholden to his big contributors if he were elected.
But beyond the issue of campaign finance, Chiles's positions on other issues were fuzzy, and he faces a tougher fight in the general election. While Chiles was fending off Nelson's accusations that he had received "sweetheart" business deals, Martinez played straight to the voters via television. Martinez heads into the fall campaign well-funded to continue carrying his message directly to voters.