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POLITICS : Big Money, Big Gamble in Florida Election : Chiles-Bush governor's race is a tossup. Sen. Mack is way out in front. Casino initiative is no sure bet.


MIAMI — For Florida voters, the Nov. 8 election is not exactly a crap shoot, but the top three issues to be decided all involve millions of dollars, major unknowns and no little risk. And only one of the ballot questions has to do with casinos.

Proposition 8 asks Floridians if they want to see 47 casinos opened across the Sunshine State, adding craps, black jack, roulette and slot machines into a tourism-dependent economy in which betting on dogs, horses, jai alai, bingo and a lottery has been legal for years. At least 14 of the gaming parlors would be in South Florida.

The other two key issues in the state are the races for the U.S. Senate and the governor's office.

One incumbent is considered a lock: Republican Sen. Connie Mack is expected to roll over his Democratic challenger, former Miami public defender Hugh Rodham, the brother of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. A poll last month showed Mack leading by more than 40 points.

Rodham, 44, whose poll numbers are climbing, may have gotten a boost from a visit to Miami two weeks ago by his sister and President Clinton. But he remains a long shot.

The First Couple turned up at a $5,000-a-plate dinner in Miami to raise money for state Democratic candidates who are thought to have a good chance of a victory on Tuesday. Rodham is not one of them.

"It's a tough, tough campaign," said Clinton of Rodham's quest. "But it's worth waging."

The other major Florida race, which also has a White House connection, is considered a toss-up. One-term Gov. Lawton Chiles, a 64-year-old Democrat and former U.S. senator, is trying to hold off Miami businessman Jeb Bush, the youngest son of former President George Bush, in a race that has turned nasty.

In a debate in Orlando, Bush reacted to recent Chiles television spots questioning the challenger's business ethics by accusing the governor of mudslinging and asking: "After all your years of public service, don't you feel a sense of shame?"

"Let me tell you what I feel," retorted an angry Chiles. "I love the state of Florida. It is not a toy for somebody to experiment with, with no experience."

Bush, a 41-year-old developer considered to be more conservative than his father, opposes abortion rights, says he would require all new state taxes to be approved by voter referendum and favors a two-year limit on welfare benefits to women and children. On the stump, he is confident and well-spoken--in both English and Spanish.

Chiles is affable and well-liked--an effective face-to-face campaigner who has never lost an election. He is a champion of environmental rights and is credited with state health care and tax reforms.

After enjoying an early lead, Bush has seen the race close to a dead heat--or even has fallen behind in recent days, according to polls.

Chiles has made gains by portraying Bush as inexperienced. His challenger also may be hurt by backlash over a controversial television ad in which Bush blames Chiles for failing to execute a man who killed a 10-year-old girl in 1980. Reminiscent of the Willie Horton ad that helped Bush's father win the presidency in 1988, the spot accuses Chiles of being soft on crime.

In fact, Bush admitted Tuesday, the killer is alive because of court appeals, and Chiles has had no role in the delays.

The ballot issue that may have the greatest long-term impact on the state is casino gambling.

The issue has lost twice before in Florida. But in a year when the state's image has been tarnished by crime and tourism is down, casinos look like a good bet to many voters.

"The consensus in the business community is that casino gambling is not the solution to every problem, but it does give us an advantage in attracting visitors," says Nicki Grossman, executive director of the Hollywood (Fla.) Chamber of Commerce.

Proposition 8 is a "limited casinos" measure, since approval would mean that only 47 gaming houses would be licensed, most at established dog and horse racing tracks, and at bingo halls run by the Seminole Indians.

Other casino licenses would be granted to large hotels, most in South Florida.

Rich developers and companies with ties to Las Vegas gambling interests have poured up to $10 million into a "vote yes" ad campaign.

Backers say casinos would create 67,000 jobs in Florida by 1997, lure 1.5 million more tourists here and raise $832 million a year in new tax revenues.

Those opposed say the numbers offered by the pro-casino forces are a sham.

"These are pirates coming to plunder," said Seymour Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach, which is considered a prime location for a mega-casino.

"Las Vegas is a city with one of the highest dropout rates in the country. . . . How about Atlantic City? Here's a city that had hit rock bottom before casinos, and it's still as bad as ever. Those are our two models. Take your choice."

In South Florida, the casino issue may pass, recent polls show, but the measure is likely to be defeated statewide.

A Voices of Florida poll last month showed voters against casinos by a margin of 59% to 36%.

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