Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign for the U.S. Senate was hit with a one-two punch Tuesday as Republican rival Marco Rubio moved ahead of him in a public opinion poll for the first time and almost matched him in fundraising for the quarter.
Rubio's 47-44 point lead over Crist actually is a statistical tie — it's within the Quinnipiac University poll's margin of error. And Crist still has a 4-1 advantage over Rubio in fundraising.
But the numbers reinforce the trend of Rubio's rise and Crist's fall as the candidates head toward the Aug. 24 primary in which only Republicans can vote.
In October, Crist led the Quinnipiac poll 50 to 35 percent. In August, Crist's lead was even bigger (55-26), and in June (54-23) the race looked like Crist would blow out Rubio and waltz into the Senate.
"Who would have thunk it? A former state lawmaker virtually unknown outside of his South Florida home enters the race 31 points behind and seven months later sneaks into the lead," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"Rubio's grass roots campaigning among Republican activists around the state clearly has paid off," Brown said.
The poll surveyed 673 registered GOP voters by phone and was conducted Wednesday through Sunday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Crist has struggled as the economy nose-dived and unemployment surged. His jobs programs haven't worked. He raised taxes last year. He had to return campaign contributions when his biggest donor, Scott Rothstein, was accused in a Ponzi scheme.
And his decision to stump with President Barack Obama for a stimulus package has dogged him, especially with conservatives.
In February, when Crist appeared onstage with Obama, it seemed like good politics, with the president enjoying sky-high approval ratings. A full 64 percent of Floridians approved of the job Obama was doing, with 23 percent disapproving, according to a February Quinnipiac poll.
No more. Now, 49 percent of Floridians disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, while 45 percent approve.
The big story, though, is Crist. With approval ratings once in the 70s, he looked like a shoo-in for the Senate contest, which is viewed by some as a national bellwether of tea-party activists and anti-incumbent sentiment. In the new poll, 50 percent approved of the job he is doing and 38 disapproved.
"We've got a tough economy. These are tough times. For any leader, it's challenging to lead in difficult times, but we're going to keep doing it," Crist said Tuesday.
Crist has two big weapons: the bully pulpit and the $7.5 million in campaign donations he has raised. Though not all of that money can be used in the primary, Crist has enough to put a dent in Rubio's poll numbers.
"This is a race to define Marco Rubio," Brown said, noting that 42 percent of GOP voters didn't know enough about the former state House speaker to have an opinion.
Rubio almost matched Crist's fundraising in the just-ended quarter. Crist reported a $2 million haul — less than he raised in the previous quarter — and Rubio reported raising $1.75 million, an increase over the previous quarter.
By a 45-40 percent split, the poll shows, Republican voters say Rubio is more of a reflection of their values than Crist. By 48-34 percent, Republican voters say Rubio is more consistently conservative than Crist.
The poll indicates Rubio might beat the leading Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, in a head-to-head match, but Crist would do better. Meek's campaign, which raised $1.2 million in the last quarter, said the poll oversampled Republicans.
That poll surveyed 1,618 registered voters and had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
Crist's troubles surprised not just pollsters but the man he's trying to replace, former Sen. Mel Martinez.
"I still wouldn't write Gov. Crist out. I think he's a resourceful political figure," Martinez told Orlando's WMFE-FM 90.7. "I think he still has a lot of resonance around this state. It's just a surprisingly close race."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@ miamiherald.com.