Bill McCollum, Kendrick Meek atop new polls

TALLAHASSEE — The insiders are back in the good graces of voters.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has seized a 9 percentage-point lead in the Republican governor's race, while U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek holds a 7 percentage-point lead in the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll of likely Florida voters released Wednesday.

Both longtime politicians were trailing their opponents — who are both millionaire political newcomers — by double digits in the last Quinnipiac University poll July 29.

The wildly fluctuating poll numbers are another sign of the volatility of an anything-can-happen election year, said pollster Peter A. Brown.

"Although this is clearly the year of the outsider, the reverse of that may be in the offing in Florida," Brown said.

McCollum's ability to surge ahead of Rick Scott and Meek's lead over Jeff Greene shows that campaigns in Florida aren't just a matter of running television ads — a crucial step in reaching voters in a state as large and diverse as Florida.

Both McCollum and Meek have deep roots in the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. Scott and Greene don't.

"The establishment still lives in Florida politics," Brown said. "The party elders on both sides have weighed in, and they obviously have clout with members of their own parties."

Brown said that McCollum has notably benefited from the endorsement of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a beloved figure in Republican politics.

Also, McCollum and Meek have classic campaigns that rely on teams of longtime supporters and unpaid volunteer foot soldiers to call voters and knock on doors in the summer heat. Scott and Greene, meantime, have enough cash to bury their opponents on television and hire legions of supporters. But the money may not help in a low turnout election in which diehards dictate the course of the election.

The primary election is Tuesday. Early and absentee voting has been under way for more than a week already — something that's likely given Scott and Greene an edge so far as their opponents cranked up their ground games to turn out the vote.

Right now, the new poll shows, about 19 percent of Republican voters are undecided, and about a third of voters who have chosen a candidate say they might change their mind. Democratic voters are more conflicted. Almost 30 percent are undecided and 39 percent who have chosen a candidate might switch.

"Nothing is for certain and the large number of undecideds and voters whose commitment to their candidate is soft makes anything possible," Brown said.

In the Democrats' Senate race, Meek leads Greene 35-28. Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre gets 6 percent of the vote. Less than three weeks ago, Meek was trailing 23-33. In the Republican race, McCollum is ahead 44-35, but trailed Scott 32-43 in the last poll.

The poll's error margin is 3.5 percent in the GOP race and 3.4 percent in the Democrats' race.

Signs of the unpredictable governor's race have been all over television and the campaign trail.

Last week, when the McCollum camp and its allies raised serious questions about the legalities of Scott's latest business venture, a chain of walk-in clinics called Solantic Urgent Care, the infuriated political newcomer flew to Tallahassee unexpectedly and held a tense and angry press conference — something front-runners seldom do.

Scott also has flooded mailboxes and television sets with negative ads about McCollum. The technique of what's known as "going negative" is typically employed by candidates who are behind.

Political experts and insiders also question whether Scott is spending his millions properly. By the end of the election, he will likely have spent about $40 million on ads. Right now, at least six different commercials with a variety of messages ranging from the so-called ground zero mosque to the economy.

Longtime political ad man Fred Davis, a California Republican consultant not involved in this race, said Scott seems to be panicking.

"Six or seven different messages is just way too many. You can't burn in seven messages," Davis said. "I wouldn't call it desperation; I would call it silly. Seven great ads with different messages can be easily trumped by just one great ad with a consistent message."

McCollum's message: Scott's untrustworthy. To drive the point home, McCollum released one of his most hard-hitting commercials showing Scott running away from television cameras and refusing to answer questions about a deposition he gave in a case against Solantic.

Female voters, known to be more risk averse, seem to have viscerally responded to McCollum's ads and back the attorney general over Scott by a 48-31 percent margin, Brown said.

But McCollum is not campaigning like a front-runner. His negative ads indicate that he doesn't believe he's leading, either.

Still, the new poll and many other recent surveys show that trends seem to favor McCollum. Among those trends: fewer Republican voters say they want a government outsider, more voters view McCollum more favorably and more believe McCollum reflects their values.

In the Democratic race, Meek's rise mirrors McCollum's. And Greene's fall appears more precipitous than Scott's.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Bill McCollum, Kendrick Meek atop new polls 08/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 7:59am]

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