TALLAHASSEE — After leaving the Republican Party before the U.S. Senate primary, Gov. Charlie Crist's strategy of veering to the political left has given him the edge in the general election, a new poll shows.
Crist garners just under 40 percent of the vote in the Senate race, while former Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio trails by only 6 percentage points, a spread that's just within the error margin of the Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released Friday.
The Democratic Senate contenders, Jeff Greene and Kendrick Meek, are far behind, respectively earning 17 and 13 percent of the vote.
The poll underscores the effectiveness of Crist's centrist style — and its risks.
Crist, who has stripped references to his conservative positions from his campaign website, has remained the frontrunner by receiving half the vote of independents, a fifth of the Republican vote and a whopping 40 percent of the Democratic vote, the poll shows.
Any change in that fragile equation — especially on the Democratic side — spells trouble for Crist, said Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown.
"Gov. Charlie Crist's small lead comes as neither Democrat breaks 20 percent in the trial heats. If that were to be the case in November, Gov. Crist would have a very good chance to win," Brown said. "But if the Democratic nominee can move into the mid to high 20s, Crist's chances decrease substantially."
The Florida governor's race is far tougher to call, according to the poll.
Democrat Alex Sink, the state chief financial officer, trails Republican frontrunner Rick Scott in a general election matchup by 27 to 29 percent. If Attorney General Bill McCollum won the Republican primary, he would only lead Sink 27 to 26 percent.
The poll's error margin is 3.2 percentage points, making the governor's race essentially dead even. The general election is Nov. 2, meaning there are months of campaigning and millions left to be spent to influence the electorate.
Sink's numbers are a slight improvement since the last Quinnipiac poll on June 10. Since then, more and more voters have come to hold negative views of Scott and McCollum as they've spent at least $30 million on negative ads trashing each other.
"When candidates throw mud at each other, they can't avoid being splattered also," Brown said. "The beneficiary of the millions is state CFO Alex Sink."
The wild card in the race: Bud Chiles, a former Democrat and son of the last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who pulls 14 percent of the vote. Chiles is running as a no-party-affiliation candidate, just like Crist.
Crist left the GOP in April, as Rubio walloped him for supporting President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, anathema to many conservatives. The poll shows that 55 percent of voters say Crist left the party because he couldn't win the primary, while 37 percent say he did it because he no longer agreed with the GOP.
Crist, who once stumped as a "consistent conservative," soon vetoed an abortion bill, backtracked on his opposition to an Obama Supreme Court nominee, ceased bashing Obama's health-reform law as "scary," refrained from criticizing the administration's oil spill response and stripped from his website his support for the Bush tax cuts.
Crist hasn't done an actual Senate campaign event in weeks, though his opponents say the lines between his campaign and public office are indistinguishable. On Monday, he's hitting up the Democrat-rich condo circuit by appearing at the Jewish Center at Century Village in Pembroke Pines in South Florida.
Though Rubio's campaign has tried to paint Crist as an opportunist, the Quinnipiac poll suggests the criticism isn't sticking — 45 percent say the governor makes decisions based on what he thinks is right, while 44 percent say his decisions are based on what's popular.
But by a 42-31 split, more voters say Rubio is motivated by what's popular than what's right.
Brown, the pollster, said Crist's position in the election is buoyed by his job-approval numbers, with 53 percent saying he's doing a good job and 37 percent saying he isn't. Crist's ratings are down from a high in 2007, but they're strong for a governor who has presided over a state with such a bad economy and rampant unemployment.
Another plus for Crist is that voters know him. Only 13 percent say they don't know enough about the governor. But 38 percent say they don't know enough about Rubio and 64 percent say they don't know enough about Greene or Meek.
Those numbers should change as the campaigns gear up.
Rubio is beating Crist in fundraising and enjoying an increasing amount of national media attention, which is sure to raise his profile.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.