Florida's political elites see Gov. Rick Scott as increasingly strong heading into a re-election campaign, but hardly a shoo-in. And veteran Florida Republican politicos appear not overly worried by the prospect of Charlie Crist as the Democratic nominee.
A new Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of more than 120 of Florida's most plugged-in political players finds them nearly evenly divided on whether Scott will win a second term, with 51 percent predicting Scott wins and 47 percent predicting he loses. Just two months ago, the Insider Poll found 60 percent expecting Scott to lose.
While more than seven in 10 Democrats still expect to retake the Governor's Mansion in 2014, Republican optimism in Scott's chances has climbed from just 53 percent of Republicans in April expecting him to win to 75 percent today.
The Insider Poll is an unscientific survey where we email top politicos to ask their opinions. It does not reflect overall public opinion in Florida. But it's a good gauge of early conventional wisdom among some of the state's most influential opinion leaders. Respondents participate with the understanding their opinions will be kept anonymous to encourage honesty. This month's insiders include top fundraisers, political strategists and consultants, lobbyists, former elected officials and political scientists.
"When it comes to Rick Scott being re-elected, never underestimate the power of a strengthening economy and $80 million on TV," said one Republican. "Scott will pound into the frontal lobes of every Floridian that he promised jobs and delivered on his promise. He wins on this critical question: Did you do better under four years of Charlie Crist or four years of Rick Scott? It's the classic contest of Beauty and the Geek. I choose Geek."
The shifting views on Scott's prospects reflect a steadily improving Florida economy and the likelihood that Democrats will go through a bruising primary to pick their nominee.
"I hope Alex (Sink) doesn't run because a lot of the support she assumes is there really isn't," said one Democrat rooting for Crist to run. "She can either be a kingmaker or put the whole enterprise at risk. But she won't be the nominee."
The 50 Democrats participating in the survey were more bullish about Crist's strength against Gov. Scott than the 61 Republicans.
Asked who would be the strongest Democrat to take on Scott, 36 Democrats said Crist, 11 said Sink, and one said Nan Rich, the former state senator from Broward who has already announced. Among the Republicans, 31 said Crist, 29 said Sink, and one said Rich.
"Charlie Crist can do what Rick Scott cannot: Get Republicans energized about supporting Rick Scott," a Republican said.
One of the 12 respondents registered to neither major party said: "Rick Scott's money and incumbency will win over two Democrats with expired shelf lives," referring to Crist and Sink.
In a hypothetical primary between Crist, Rich and Sink, more than seven in 10 insiders said Crist would win the nomination.
The survey did include Sen. Bill Nelson, who is being courted to run but dismissing the prospect without entirely ruling it out.
Nearly seven in 10 respondents said Nelson would clear the Democratic field if he decides to run. The April Insider Poll found nearly two-thirds of those surveyed calling Nelson the strongest Democrat against Scott.
"Alex Sink could beat Charlie Crist in a primary, but she would need $7 million in the primary and I do not think she can raise that amount with Crist in the race," said one Democrat skeptical of Crist's ability to beat Scott. "Bill Nelson is the only game-changer in this state. If Nelson runs, he will make it possible for Democrats to win the CFO and attorney general races. Nelson is the only one who can change the future for Democrats in the state of Florida politics for several years to come."
Few of those participating in the Insider Poll expect anything but a close and unpredictable race.
"Rick Scott gives Republicans the best chance to lose. Charlie Crist gives Democrats the best chance to lose," said a Republican. "This will be a low turnout slugfest with barely a point between the two on Election Day."
The list of participants in the latest Florida Insider poll can be found at tampabay.com/buzz. Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.