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Turnout is key for Rick Scott, Alex Sink in neck-and-neck governor's race

When the polls open today, Alex Sink will find herself in familiar territory for a Democrat in a Florida governor's race: losing the voter turnout war.

About 271,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast absentee or early-vote ballots, which probably translates into a sizable lead for Republican Rick Scott before the first person votes on Election Day.

But that doesn't mean Scott is up by a huge margin, and he's unlikely to hang onto much of a lead for long.

Two polls released Monday showed Sink leads Scott by a percentage point — essentially a tie. And every major recent public poll shows that Sink draws more support than Scott from voters with no party affiliation. Also, polls say Sink is slightly more popular among Republicans than Scott is among Democrats.

Still, Scott right now could have a real lead of more than 100,000 votes, according to a Times/Herald analysis of recent public polls applied to the early and absentee ballot data.

Democrats say it's not an insurmountable lead.

''One hundred thousand is not a huge hill,'' said Steve Schale, a Sink campaign advisor, who notes that Democrats have a voter registration edge over Republicans of more than 600,000 statewide.

Schale said the number of reliable Democratic voters who are expected to cast ballots on Election Day exceeds the number of reliable Republicans who didn't cast early votes.

''Our bucket of traditional voters at this point is larger than their bucket,'' Schale said.

But Republicans say they'd rather be in Scott's position. And they say their pre-Election Day lead is probably greater than 100,000.

''We think the people who have voted so far, especially Republicans, are Rick voters,'' said Republican Party of Florida spokesman Dan Conston. ''Rick has consolidated his base, more so than some polling outfits indicate. Many Democrats in this state are conservative-leaning, and I don't think they have any reason to vote for Alex Sink.''

Typically, Republicans vote in disproportionately larger numbers in midterm elections. This year, even more Republicans could show up. Republicans say President Barack Obama's policies have alienated conservative Democrats.

Surveys show conservatives are far more fired up than they were in 2006, when, for the first time in recent memory, more Republicans (44 percent) showed up at the polls than Democrats (42 percent). Charlie Crist, a Republican at the time, won the race against his Democratic rival by 7 percentage points. And this year the Republican lead among early and absentee ballots cast is greater than it was in 2006.

But that year, Sink also won her race for chief financial officer by 7 percentage points.

In this race, Sink has a trump card: the record-setting fine for fraud that Scott's former hospital company paid. Numerous polls show that at least half the electorate views Scott negatively, which could make him ''the country's most unpopular newly elected governor,'' according to Public Policy Polling. The survey company, which typically polls for Democrats, accurately called the results of the Aug. 23 Republican primary race for governor.

''The big question in Florida is whether enough Democrats will come out to vote (today) to make up for the large Republican advantage in early voting,'' said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. ''It doesn't matter how unpopular Rick Scott is if the Republicans are the only ones who vote.''

Public Policy Polling showed Sink leads Scott by 1 percentage point, as did another Monday poll from Quinnipiac University.

''The big question mark is that the polling suggests Sink still has a chance here,'' said Michael McDonald, an expert on early and absentee voting with George Mason University. ''Clearly, there are challenges for the Democrats.''

He said Democrats started to catch up to Republicans before early voting ended Sunday.

Republican strategist David ''DJ'' Johnson said the early voting numbers are encouraging, but no one can declare victory.

''I don't think anyone has anything locked up in this one,'' Johnson said. ''There are way too many unknowns.''

Polls show Sink is doing well in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area. Scott leads in North Florida, Southwest Florida and rural counties. That leaves Central Florida up for grabs — a region where Sink spent two of the last three days.

Though Republicans have beaten them so far in getting out the vote, Florida Democrats say the margins could have been worse. For the first time, they used a coordinated campaign to get out the vote, knock on doors and phone voters.

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat and political science professor at New College of Florida, predicted a close race.

''Everybody is a little uneasy about this election because it's a strange year,'' he said. ''Even the pollsters say voters are all over the place.''

Marc Caputo can be reached at Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

Turnout is key for Rick Scott, Alex Sink in neck-and-neck governor's race 11/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 12:21pm]
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