Bill McCollum's nonstop attacks on Republican rival Rick Scott's integrity and business record have put him in the lead for the first time, a new poll shows.
McCollum is ahead of Scott by a 34-30 percent margin — a huge shift from just a week ago, when Scott led 37-31, according to the latest survey from Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
Pollster Brad Coker said both candidates' reputations are taking a hit as they sling tens of millions of dollars' worth of negative ads against each other heading into the Aug. 24 primary election.
"Democratic candidate Alex Sink is the clear winner from all of this," said Coker.
Sink, who has trailed in the Mason-Dixon polls since May, now leads McCollum by a 37-35 margin. That's well within the general election error margin of the poll.
That's not the case when it comes to Scott. She stomps him by a 40-24 percent margin. Only 42 percent of Republicans would support Scott against Sink. But if she faced McCollum, he'd receive 69 percent of the GOP support.
So Scott is nearly unelectable in the general election, according to the poll.
But a third of the electorate is undecided. And the results of polls in this volatile political season shift by the day -- and by the ad buy. Also, survey results vary depending on whether they poll registered voters or likely voters, as Mason-Dixon did.
Coker said Scott is being hurt for multiple reasons:
• The Medicare fraud problems in his business background are starting to gain traction.
• He might have oversaturated the television market with ads.
• He didn't do very well in the debates he participated in. He declined to take part in a debate with McCollum on Wednesday in Orlando.
"When you duck debates, it doesn't help you," Coker said.
Sink leads either way because of the strong support of fellow Democrats — who outnumber Republicans in the state — and independent voters.
Regardless of Sink's opponent, independent candidate Lawton "Bud'' Chiles garners less than 20 percent of the vote right now.
McCollum's lead in the Republican race isn't solid. The poll, when it comes to registered Republican voters, has an error margin of 5 percentage points, making the race almost even.
The poll, taken from Aug. 9-11, surveyed 625 registered voters who said they vote in every election. The general election matchups have an error margin of 4 percentage points.
The topsy-turvy race underscores the power of negative campaigning. All told, both McCollum and Scott have spent between $30 million and $40 million on negative commercials.
McCollum, aided by a host of powerful special interests in the Capitol, has spent millions raising questions about Scott's leadership in the 1990s of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which was hit with a record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine.
Scott has said he's "responsible'' for what happened at the company, but he won't say exactly what he means by that. Scott received $300 million in stock options and a $10 million payout when he was ousted from the hospital board.
McCollum is also raising questions about another Scott business, Solantic Urgent Care, which the multimillionaire founded in 2001 as a patient-centered chain of walk-in health clinics.
In one debate, McCollum repeatedly raised the issue of Scott's integrity and business background in an effort to portray the political newcomer as a dangerous unknown.
"Who are you? Why are you running for governor? Who are you really, Rick Scott?" an agitated McCollum said.
McCollum also referenced a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald report about how Scott was deposed in a doctor's lawsuit against Solantic just six days before April 13, when he announced his bid for governor. The former Solantic doctor alleged his name was improperly used in a licensing matter with the state. The issue was cleared up, but the 2008 suit was only settled within weeks of Scott announcing his candidacy.
Under terms of a settlement agreement, neither side can talk about the case and Scott has refused to release his video deposition, which would likely be used in an attack ad against him.
A McCollum and Sink contributor, trial lawyer Steven Andrews, filed a lawsuit Monday against a Collier County court reporter seeking access to the deposition.
The lawsuit also raises allegations from another doctor, Randy Prokes, who claims Solantic committed billing fraud — an allegation Solantic officials say is untrue and part of a smear campaign by McCollum.
Scott was so infuriated with the suit that he flew to Tallahassee on Tuesday to hold an impromptu press conference at which he compared McCollum to a thug, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding and President Barack Obama.
"He will try anything to rig the race so he can hang on to his power," Scott said, saying McCollum was running a "dying campaign." But for days, polls have shown McCollum's candidacy has been reinvigorated, with the Mason-Dixon survey showing the attorney general is leading for the first time in weeks.
The acrimony is so thick between the Republicans that McCollum suggested Sink had more ''character and integrity'' than Scott. McCollum spent Thursday on his "Real Solutions. Real Jobs'' bus tour through North Florida, where he met with local business and had open media access.
Scott appeared in West Palm Beach to bash an Everglades restoration plan that he described as a bailout for U.S. Sugar — a major campaign contributor. Scott in July had called the sugar deal "great."
During his press conference, a McCollum supporter heckled Scott to make the Solantic deposition public. Scott didn't take questions from the press.
While McCollum hailed the poll, Scott seemingly dismissed the results.
"I'm very comfortable we are going to win," Scott said.
Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]