SANFORD, FLA. -- It was another flawless campaign day for Gov. Bob Martinez: lots of photo ops, local television time, big, friendly crowds, and just the right blend of a tough-on-crime, pro-environment pitch from the candidate. As his entourage rolled across the politically friendly terrain in Florida's midsection, Martinez volunteered how successful his big-budget campaign machine seemed to be.

"In April, I was 24 points down," he said. "On August 8th, I was only seven down. And now we're even. Or if you believe one poll, I'm up by a point."

Martinez's pride in his rehabilitation in the polls -- "a miracle," his campaign manager calls it -- underscores just how much trouble Florida's first-term Republican governor was in and how precarious his party's grasp has been on one of the key governorships in the nation.

Those polls now show Martinez locked in a neck-and-neck race with the popular former senator Lawton Chiles (D). But despite the Herculean recovery effort, which was brought about with a $10.2 million campaign treasury, a 75-day plus nightly blitz of television commercials, and assistance from a star-studded cast of visiting Republican dignitaries, the governor may not in the end be able to overcome the huge reservoir of discontent among voters unhappy with his performance in office.

Martinez's troubles date back to 1987. Just three months into his term, after promising to "sweat" $800 million in waste from the state's budget, he embraced a billion-dollar tax increase on services.

The move so enraged his no-new-taxes supporters that five months later Martinez reversed himself and successfully pushed for a repeal of the tax. But the flip-flop only deepened Martinez's troubles by angering another segment of the electorate.

"His problems go all the way to that, and he still hasn't recovered," said Robert Joffee, an independent pollster whose Mason-Dixon poll shows the race even.

After the tax fiasco, things seemed only to get worse.

The governor started a lottery to fund education, but the state lags behind in scholastic testing. He doubled the size of the prisons, but inmates serve less than a third of their sentences before being released. He fought an increase in the state gasoline tax, and his Transportation Department ran out of money.

Martinez also has had a penchant for stepping into unwanted controversy.

In 1989, he ignored his advisers and called a special session of the legislature to write tougher abortion laws. The angry lawmakers rejected each of the governor's proposals. Last winter, he asked the state attorney general to investigate the rap band 2 Live Crew under racketeering laws, but he was rebuffed.

Chiles portrays Martinez as ineffective and unable to handle the vast array of social problems that confront the nation's fourth-largest state.

But part of Martinez's persistent troubles stem from the overwhelming nature of the problems themselves.

Florida's ever-spiraling population brings an average of 900 new residents to the state every day, yet its tax base is unable to cope with the need for new schools, roads, hospitals and other social services.

Most dramatic is Florida's inability to keep on top of an exploding crime rate.

Martinez battled the Democratic-controlled legislature and built 28,000 new prison beds and increased the annual prisons budget from $417 million to $1 billion. Yet the state still cannot keep pace with the growing number of inmates that have overwhelmed the prison system.

Already burdened with high negative ratings, Martinez was not helped by the surprise entry into the governor's race of Chiles, who is regarded here as almost a legendary figure.

As Martinez battled to pull even, Chiles ran a maverick anti-campaign, making Martinez's campaign finances a central issue in the election.

Chiles has run his campaign as a counterpoint to the Martinez operation. As Martinez took in the legally allowable limit of $3,000 per contribution, Chiles limited his donors to $100 each.

When Martinez hosted a $1,500-a-plate fund-raiser with former president Ronald Reagan in Orlando, Chiles threw an impromptu $1.50-a-plate chicken dinner across town the same night.

Chiles's enormous popularity enabled him to succeed where lesser-known candidates might have failed. Even under the self-imposed restriction, Chiles raised $4 million. In fact, in the last three weeks, Chiles raised more money ($1.15 million) than Martinez did ($1 million).

But while Chiles's fund-raising has held up, other aspects of his campaign have been largely ineffective. He has refused to attack Martinez in negative television commercials or to draw a sharp contrast with the incumbent. He also has not laid out a specific program of his own.

Throughout September and early October, while Martinez was stacking six or eight events a day into his schedule and finding a way onto the evening television news, Chiles and his running mate, Kenneth "Buddy" McKay, continued with their "anti-campaign" campaign. They tromped off to three-hour meetings with directors of housing programs and elderly programs and attended sessions where they learned about the details of day care, recycling and economic development in poor black neighborhoods.

At one such session in Miami, when the director asked the candidate if he would like to pose for pictures, Chiles said no, his visit wasn't for that kind of thing.