TALLAHASSEE — Republican Rick Scott narrowly leads Democrat Alex Sink in Florida's too-close-to-call governor's race thanks to enthusiastic conservatives and widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, according to a new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
Scott's 3-percentage-point advantage among likely voters comes at the perfect time: the opening week of early voting, with more Republicans than Democrats headed to the polls. Election Day is Nov. 2.
But besting Sink, the state's chief financial officer, isn't a simple task for Scott, a political newcomer.
Scott's 44-41 lead is well within the poll's 4.1 percent margin of error. He also has the smallest advantage over a Democrat when compared to his three Republican colleagues who are besting their rivals by double digits in the statewide races for Florida's three Cabinet seats, according to the poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs.
For voters like Republican Rebecca Norton, the governor's race is overshadowed by what she sees as President Barack Obama's failures in office and the wretched state of Florida's economy. A majority of voters — 54 percent — say Florida's on the wrong track, compared to just 28 percent who say Florida's on the right track.
"Truthfully, it's not about liking Scott or disliking Alex Sink. It's about having a Republican in office," said Norton, a 44-year-old Weston resident. "The people are ready for something different. They no longer believe the marketing campaign Obama presented."
Sink hasn't really run as a partisan Democrat, and she has run away from President Obama at times. At an August fundraiser in Miami Beach, Sink avoided stepping on stage with Obama and didn't greet him at the airport. And when Obama came to Miami for another fundraiser earlier this month, Sink made sure to be in another city.
Playing down her Democratic roots has helped Sink attract independent voters. They favor her by 11 percentage points more than Scott. That's crucial for Sink because independents tend to be the deciding factor in Florida races.
But it's not enough. About a third of independents are undecided — and they're the least likely to vote this election when compared with Republicans and Democrats, the poll shows.
Republicans are the most fired-up voters this year. Three-quarters of registered Republican voters say they're "completely certain'' they will vote, compared to two-thirds of Democrats, who have narrowed the so-called "enthusiasm gap'' in recent months.
By a 15 percentage point margin, Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to say they're paying a "great deal'' of attention to the election. Another problem for Sink: 16 percent of Democrats are voting for Scott, while 10 percent are undecided.
Even Scott's bitter rival in the GOP primary, Attorney General Bill McCollum, has changed his mind. After the August primary, McCollum had refused to back Scott. But late Friday he issued a statement saying Scott was "the better choice for Florida."
"She has work to do," said Julia Clark, pollster for Ipsos Public Affairs. "She needs to solidify her Democratic base, convince the undecideds to swing to her and get more independent votes."
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. Ipsos Public Affairs is 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.
Whether the poll measures registered or independent voters, the result is the same: Sink trails by 3 percentage points. About 11 percent of likely voters are unsure of what candidate they'll back, compared to 13 percent of registered voters.
Among the undecided voters is Karen Reed, a 55-year-old from the Orange County suburbs. She currently collects a disability check from Social Security, is against more government spending, supported John McCain in the presidential election and thinks — like 51 percent of registered voters surveyed — President Obama is doing a bad job. Only 43 percent give the president favorable marks.
Independent voter Jeff Levy, a 35-year-old St. Petersburg software programmer, is also disappointed in Obama, for whom he voted. He said he'll vote for Sink, though. He said he doesn't like Scott, whose former hospital company was ultimately hit with a record Medicare fraud fine.
Levy said he caught the tail end of Wednesday night's debate and thought Scott was "dishonest'' and prone to "parse words'' and duck questions, just as he had in lawsuit depositions printed in recent news accounts.
"What I do know is that we can't let Rick Scott get near Tallahassee," Levy said. "That guy scares me to death."
St. Petersburg Democrat Doug Giannotti, 51, put it a different way: "He's got enough money to hire the best of the best. He can package himself up like a Nike shoe, but it doesn't make him run faster."
Scott's background, though, appeals to Republican voter Jose Nadal, a 62-year-old from Hialeah who refers to the front-runner in the race as "the bald guy."
"He was in the military. And he's a self-made man," said Nadal, who added that he's voting straight Republican because "the Democrats are very dishonest. Look at the Broward School Board — they're all fans of Obama and now they're under indictment."
While Hispanic Republican voters such as Nadal insist they will cast ballots this year, the poll shows Hispanics as a whole look like they're the least likely to vote when compared to Anglos and African-Americans.
That could be troubling for Sink, who needs the Democratic Hispanic vote in Central Florida to cancel out the largely Cuban-American Republican vote in Miami-Dade County — a reliable voting bloc.
Democrat-rich South Florida is crucial for Sink, but the poll shows she's essentially tied with Scott, who's drawing on heavy Republican support in his home base of southwest Florida. They're basically tied in Central Florida as well, but Scott is pulling ahead in North Florida, home to conservative Democrats.
Regardless of the region, voters are worried about the direction of Florida — and that helps Scott even though Republicans have largely controlled the state for more than a decade. About 51 percent of the voters who see the state on the wrong track support Scott, compared to just 33 percent for Sink — a sign that voters view Scott as the man who can revive the economy.
Benny Bashline, a 78-year-old Tampa Republican, said the election is all about jobs, which is why he backs Scott. He said he's not worried about the Medicare scandal tied to Scott because NationsBank also had fraud issues when Sink was state bank president. Also, he said, Sink didn't do enough to stem investment losses on the State Board of Administration.
"He has stuff in his past," Bashline said. "But she does, too."
Times/Herald staff writers Becky Bowers, Lee Logan and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.