Even before wiry, straight-backed, cracker-mouthed Congressman Buddy MacKay emerged from a cloud of Democratic dust in early October, Rep. Connie Mack knew he meant trouble. Mr. Mack, the Republican US Senate nominee in Florida, is of the new national breed of young, combative, go-get-'em conservatives.
But Mr. MacKay is just the sort of candidate with which Florida Democrats regularly beat Republicans.
This is one of the closest Senate races in the country this year.
A month ago Florida appeared to be the Republicans' best shot at picking up a Democratic Senate seat. But now polls show the race to be a dead heat or else give the edge to Democrat MacKay. This in a state where the top of his ticket, Michael Dukakis, is trailing by 20 points.
Like the presidential race, the Florida Senate race has largely spun on whether the Democrat fits the epithet of the year - liberal. Unlike Mr. Dukakis, MacKay has argued against the label with some success.
Mr. Mack is a sunny-natured former bank president with all-American, chipped-tooth charm. His real name is Cornelius McGillicuddy III, but he uses the short version of the name that his grandfather made popular as owner and manager of the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball team.
Mack was a Democrat until 1979, pro-choice on abortion and in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment until 1982.
Now he is one of the most conservative members of Congress. In 1986, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action rated him 0.0 percent, while the American Conservative Union gave him a rare 100 percent.
He has been an unstinting Reagan loyalist. He was Jack Kemp's Florida chairman in the primaries. He has not been at all shy of partisan confrontation in Congress.
His battle cry in this campaign has been less government and less taxes. His gauntlet: ``Buddy, you're liberal.''
But MacKay will not be pinned down so easily. Over the years, he has shown a strong independent streak, a pragmatic turn of mind, and tendency to take on his own party's powers and principalities.
During the 12 years he spent in the Florida Legislature, MacKay was known as a ``doghouse Democrat'' for pushing open-meeting laws and ``sunset'' legislation that helped end the reign of a rural clique dubbed the Pork Chop Gang.
A native of central Florida's horse country, MacKay is no ``boll weevil'' conservative Southern Democrat. Although Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the Democrat's leading Southern hawk, came down last week to vouch for MacKay's record, MacKay runs decidedly to the left of Nunn. He opposed military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, for example.
Still, he's hard to paint as a liberal. His record runs close to that of retiring Sen. Lawton Chiles (D), whose boots MacKay wants to fill. Both men are rated in the center by interest and ideology groups. Both have been willing to put Democratic programs on the block to cut federal spending.
MacKay proposed a budget-cutting package in 1986, for instance, that included freezing social security cost-of-living allowances.
Until Democrats finally nominated MacKay in an Oct. 3 runoff, Mack had run a charmed race.
He first entered the race ready for some heavy lifting to unseat popular senior Senator Chiles. When Mr. Chiles bowed out, former Gov. Reuben Askew (D) became the obvious favorite. When Mr. Askew in turn dropped out, the Democratic primary became a dogfight. MacKay and state insurance commissioner Bill Gunter made the runoff and proceeded to chew each other up.
Polls then showed Mack beating Mr. Gunter, but not MacKay. So a week before the MacKay and Gunter matchup, the Mack campaign began running ads attacking MacKay as a liberal. MacKay won anyway.
Between MacKay and Mack, the key battle is over the conservative Democrats of rural and north Florida - the ones likely to be pulling the lever for George Bush.
These voters have shown a willingness to vote for Democrats like Sen. Bob Graham, Chiles, and Askew. But they are conservatives, and their Democratic loyalties are less binding year by year.