What kind of governor's race do you get when you take two buttoned-down politicians and add a rookie who splashes $6 million in television ads around the state?
A neck-and-neck contest between Republican Bill McCollum and Democrat Alex Sink, a wild-card surge by Republican Rick Scott, and more than one-quarter of Florida voters on the fence, according to a new poll conducted for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13.
More than five months before the Nov. 2 election, the Ipsos Public Affairs survey finds Attorney General McCollum backed by 34 percent and Chief Financial Officer Sink by 32 percent; McCollum's lead falls within the poll's margin of error of 4 percentage points.
McCollum is the clear GOP primary front-runner so far, pulling 46 percent support compared with 22 percent for Scott and 3 percent for state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland. Scott, a Naples resident completely unknown just two months ago, has gained double-digit support through a flood of TV ads and poses a potentially serious threat to McCollum.
"The fact that Scott made so much headway so quickly shows everything is not quite as stitched up as it might appear,'' Ipsos director Julia Clark said.
McCollum's campaign claimed a piece of the airwaves Friday with its first television ad, featuring former Gov. Jeb Bush. But the Scott campaign said it amounted to less than $200,000 in advertising.
A former 20-year congressman from the Orlando area who twice ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate, McCollum had less than $4 million to spend as of March 31, while Scott is on track to spend more than $25 million by the Aug. 24 primary. Scott's ads naturally don't mention that he was CEO of the Columbia/HCA health care corporation that paid a $1.7 billion fraud settlement; they stress his commitment to the tea party movement and opposition to President Barack Obama's agenda.
"I'm very high on what I hear from him," said Republican Steve Bayless of Pinellas Park, a 62-year-old retired teacher. "I think he really is speaking to the conservative members of the party. And I think he's saying things that the majority of Americans are thinking."
Bayless added: "Bill McCollum, he's just kind of a political mystery to me. I don't really see him as being the leader that we need."
McCollum responded to his new rival Friday in Miami.
"I would suggest that there are real questions about Rick Scott's record as the CEO of HCA/Columbia and people ought to look at it," McCollum said. "It's the responsible thing to do to say look at people's records, our backgrounds, and I think that we all know that that counts for a lot in terms of the character and the quality and the kind of leadership anybody's going to provide."
Dockery had hoped to be the main alternative to McCollum when she jumped in the race seven months ago, but she has been overshadowed by McCollum's establishment support and Scott's big spending. The poll shows her as a nonfactor in the race.
Voters only know Scott because "he's been on TV nonstop," Dockery said Friday while addressing the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. "At some point people are going to say, 'Is somebody coming to buy a seat?' "
Then there's McCollum, Dockery said, "who is a nice guy," but also a career politician. "An insider is not what the voters in the state of Florida want this year."
The telephone survey of 607 registered voters was conducted May 14-18 for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was done by Ipsos Public Affairs, a Washington-based independent, nonpartisan research company. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points overall, and slightly more than 6 percentage points for questions asked solely to Democrats or Republicans.
As Florida's economy continues reeling, only 35 percent of voters surveyed said the state is on the right track, while 48 percent said wrong track. Independent voters were by far the most pessimistic, with more than six in 10 saying Florida is on the wrong track.
Sink faces no strong contenders for the Democratic nomination, though Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, son of the late governor, says he is looking seriously at jumping in the race and challenging her.
As a first-term chief financial officer who has only run for statewide office once before, Sink is not nearly as familiar as McCollum to Florida voters. The poll suggests many voters don't realize Sink is a woman since she and McCollum are virtually tied among female voters.
As attorney general, McCollum has taken the lead in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the overhaul of the health care system, and Scott also has made that a centerpiece of his campaign.
Sink has criticized that lawsuit, and is mainly stressing her status as a lifelong businesswoman who can bring more accountability to Tallahassee.
Despite Sink's promise to shake up the status quo, nearly six in 10 voters who felt Florida is heading on the right track backed her, while more than six in 10 who felt Florida is on the wrong track backed McCollum. She had the support of 61 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans; McCollum had the support of 65 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats.
"It's very much of an open race,'' said Clark, the pollster. "Either one of them could easily pull ahead."
Times/Herald staff writers Aaron Sharockman, John Frank and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Beth Reinhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.