MIAMI, NOV. 1 -- Democrat Lawton Chiles has not made it a practice to speak out loudly for abortion rights in his campaign for governor of Florida, but as the race headed into its final days he has found his voice and the issue could bring him to victory over Gov. Bob Martinez (R).

During their debate Monday night, Chiles gave a passionate defense of his support for abortion rights, saying he would "trust the women of Florida." A Miami Herald poll published today indicated that abortion could make the difference for Chiles in the close contest with Martinez, a strong opponent of abortion.

Chiles and Martinez were in a virtual tie, 46 to 45 percent, in the poll, but among most likely voters Chiles's lead was 51 to 45 percent. The undecided swing group of voters, the poll found, is dominated by Republican women -- a group that generally favors abortion rights and has moved away from Martinez.

Martinez has turned to Barbara Bush, who appears in a television commercial endorsing the first-term governor, to help assure women voters and older citizens. "Barbara Bush is doing the Lord's work for us," a Martinez campaign adviser said today. "We need Republican women."

Martinez also needs senior citizens, a group a national Republican official described as "furious" with the GOP because President Bush agreed to a budget that cuts Medicare benefits. Older voters are Florida's largest voting bloc and they turn out in large numbers. Adding to the governor's troubles, the official said, is that his traditional Republican base is also "furious" over taxes and "may not show up to vote."

After 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Chiles has the kind of name familiarity in Florida that made him an instant front-runner when he entered the race and has allowed him to run a populist, low-budget campaign. Martinez had been all but written off by political analysts after a mediocre and sometimes bumbling term in Tallahassee.

When Chiles got into the race last spring, Martinez was 24 points behind. Chiles refused contributions larger than $100 and made the rejection of big money politics the theme of his campaign.

Martinez, with his $10 million campaign treasury, was expected to wage a tough negative campaign to try to catch up, but that has not been the case. Instead, he managed to rehabilitate himself in the polls with soft commercials about his commitment to family values, the environment and education.

Last winter, Martinez hinted that he might run an entirely different race, and an early television ad seemed to set the tone for an emotional, gut-level campaign. Showing scenes of serial killer Ted Bundy in the courtroom, Martinez boasted in the ad about the number of convicts on Death Row executed during his term.

But Martinez's big negative attack has yet to materialize. The governor ran an ad accusing Chiles of voting against elderly programs in the Senate. He tried to make something of a meeting Chiles had as a senator with financier David Paul, whose failed savings and loan stands as a monument in the S&L debacle. He also accused Chiles of being a "liberal" and a "Washington insider" in the debate.

The primary reason that the race has been relatively tame, according to both camps, is the way Florida newspapers have cast themselves in the role of referee. The St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald both published "ad watches," which printed the text of the television ads and then analyzed them for distortions and inaccuracies.

"Every time we developed a facial tick, the newspapers jumped on us and shouted, 'Look, he's going to spit on Lawton,' " complained Martinez's campaign manager, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich.

With the newspapers refereeing the media campaign, the Republicans are banking on the legions of Florida newcomers to reelect their embattled governor. The newcomers tend to be Republicans. But because they are so new, they are also among the least likely to vote.

At a Martinez campaign appearance last week near Orlando, Pamela Delgado showed up to shake the governor's hand. She and her husband moved to Orlando from southern California a year ago and she said she didn't know much about either gubernatorial candidate.

So who does she like for governor, she was asked.

"Dianne Feinstein," she said.