Republican Marco Rubio is on the verge of delivering one of the biggest political knockouts in Florida history, as a new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll shows him barreling into Florida's open U.S. Senate seat 15 percentage points ahead of Gov. Charlie Crist.
The poll shows 41 percent of likely voters backing Rubio, compared to 26 percent for the no-party governor and 20 percent for Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek. It's a remarkable position for the former state House speaker from Miami, who 18 months ago looked hopeless against Florida's supposedly invincible governor.
A two-man race might be competitive, but Rubio is coasting to Nov. 2 in the unusual three-way contest.
"There doesn't seem to be much doubt in our minds that Rubio will take the election,'' said Julia Clark, pollster for Ipsos Public Affairs, which conducted the survey.
The results underscore how Rubio merely needs to avoid any major mistakes in the last week of the campaign, which kicks off today as the three candidates face off at 9 a.m. on CNN in their fifth televised debate.
Crist's unprecedented independent bid demanded tricky navigation to stitch together a winning coalition, but two months ago it looked like he could pull it off. In August, the governor was leading Rubio by pulling one in four Republican votes, beating Meek among Democrats and handily leading among independents.
Since then, however, undecided voters have broken to Rubio, while Crist has lost ground with Democrats and Republicans. Meek is winning 42 percent of Democratic voters, compared to 36 percent for Crist, while 70 percent of Republicans are backing Rubio and only 17 percent Crist. The governor is leading among independent voters with 40 percent, compared to 21 percent for Rubio and 5 percent for Meek.
"Rubio really solidified most of the Republican support behind him. He certainly gets support from the tea party, but his positioning has been more as a mainstream Republican, and that has been a successful tactic,'' said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson.
The telephone survey of 801 registered voters, including 577 likely voters, was conducted Oct. 15-19 for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was done by Ipsos, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonpartisan research company. The margin of error among likely voters is 4.1 percentage points and the margin of error among the larger sample of registered voters is 3.5 percentage points.
The key to Rubio's success in an anti-establishment election year: running against Washington. Though he has been in public office for most of the past 12 years — including two as speaker of the Florida House — the 39-year-old Cuban-American has succeeded in pitching himself as a political outsider.
"Fresh start, a fresh face — that's the major reason that I like him,'' said 72-year-old Concetta "Tina" Parziale, a Republican retired pre-K teacher and insurance claims adjuster who lives in Spring Hill. "What we've had so far has gotten us in this mess. . . . I think he'll stand up to people in Washington.''
With Rubio, Meek and a slew of conservative groups repeatedly hammering Crist as a flip-flopping political opportunist, the message has stuck. Crist only left the Republican Party to run as an independent, Parziale said, because he knew Rubio would beat him in the Aug. 24 primary.
"I just thought he was kind of a spoiled brat,'' she said. "It was just too political.''
Retired college administrator John Mellon is a Democrat, but the Bradenton resident said he's going with Crist.
"I would like to have thought that the Democratic candidate would impress me," he said of Meek. "He's a good guy, he's got some experience and all that. But he is not somebody that I feel strongly positive about."
In a sign that Crist might have had better luck running for a second term, more voters approve of his performance as governor — 48 percent — than disapprove — 38 percent.
The poll shows why the central argument in Rubio's campaign — that he is the only candidate who will stand up to President Barack Obama's agenda — is a winning message. Only 43 percent of voters approve of Obama's handling of his job, while 51 percent disapprove.
"It seems that almost everything he does, the country doesn't want him to do,'' said Howard Licker, 74, a retiree from Palm Beach County and former Republican now registered independent.
"The first year of his presidency, all he was interested in was his health care program. It was important, but jobs were more important. People thought that he must not care about jobs."
Fifty-two percent of voters — and even one in four Democrats — think the health care plan passed by Congress should be repealed. Only about one in three voters think it should remain in place.
Crist has been blasting Rubio as an extremist tea party candidate, but 53 percent of voters say they personally identify with the insurgent tea party movement for lower taxes and less spending. That includes 80 percent of Republicans, 44 percent of independents and 28 percent of Democrats.
Crist and Meek have also criticized Rubio for suggesting that keeping Social Security solvent may require raising the retirement eligibility age for future recipients.
The poll found that 68 percent of voters oppose raising the retirement age, including 73 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans. The opposition softened only slightly when asked if they would support the change for people currently under 55 years old: 64 percent opposed and 27 percent favored.
Rubio would be the first Hispanic from Miami to serve as Florida's senator, and the survey found him receiving strong support from that crucial swing vote. He's favored by 38 percent of Hispanics, compared to 22 percent for Crist and 16 percent for Meek.
Times/Herald staff writers Becky Bowers and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.