Charlie Crist's declaration of independence is paying off — so far.
The governor narrowly leads Florida's topsy-turvy U.S. Senate race, despite nearly half of the voters saying he made a "purely political" decision to bolt the GOP and run as an independent candidate in the Nov. 2 general election, a new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll finds.
Of the registered voters surveyed, 30 percent were for Crist, 27 percent for Republican Marco Rubio and 15 percent for Democratic front-runner Kendrick Meek. The race remains volatile: Crist's lead over Rubio is within the poll's margin of error of 4 percentage points, and nearly one out of four voters is undecided.
"This is a bit of a petri dish in some ways because Crist is a popular guy — people like him, they like his policies," pollster Julia Clark, director of Ipsos Public Affairs, said of the outsized influence independent and swing voters may have on the race. "He is stripping away support from both the Democrats and the Republicans, and I think that's going to confuse things a lot for both of those parties."
The secret to Crist's success so far: his broader appeal across the political spectrum in the newly reconfigured three-man race. He is backed by 39 percent of independents, 38 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans. Rubio, a former House speaker from Miami, and Meek, a Miami congressman, are drawing most of their support from members of their own parties.
For a governor who is leading one of the country's most economically ravaged states and who only a few weeks ago faced near-certain defeat against Rubio in the Aug. 24 GOP primary, Crist remains remarkably well-liked.
Only 38 percent disapprove of his job performance, while 52 percent approve — including more than six in 10 independents and Democrats.
Even among Republicans who all but drove him from their party, more voters approve of his performance than disapprove. The poll surveyed registered voters, rather than more partisan likely voters.
"I like what I see about the guy," said Democrat Bill Caddey, 76, of Port Charlotte. "He's kind of a back-and-forth guy on certain things, but I think he's a decent human being."
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Meek has been nearly invisible while the political world fixated on the Crist vs. Rubio drama, which mirrored the ideological battle within the GOP playing out around the country. Some analysts argue that Meek will wind up pulling the overwhelming majority of Democrats, but five months from Election Day, the unaffiliated Crist is leading among Democratic voters, 38 percent to 33 percent.
"I don't know anything really about Meek. Only recently has his name come up. He's not a proven person as far as I'm concerned," said Rita Platman, 74, a registered Democrat in Trinity, the Pasco County community.
She had been considering changing her registration to vote for Crist in the Republican primary but said, "I'm glad he took away that choice of mine."
Despite the Democratic establishment lining up behind Meek, more than 40 percent of the Democrats surveyed were undecided in that primary. Meek drew the support of 33 percent, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre 10 percent, and billionaire investor Jeff Greene 9 percent.
Greene, a Palm Beach resident who made hundreds of millions betting on the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, is a wild-card candidate who spent $1.3 million on ads last week and booked the same for this week. About half of the poll interviews were conducted before Greene's ads started blanketing Florida TV, so "his number will begin to go up" as more people see his ads, Clark said.
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, D.C.-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.
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The poll found 47 percent of voters see Crist's defection from the GOP last month as an "opportunistic decision,'' while 33 percent describe it as "an act of principle.'' At the same time, 49 percent said they are either more likely to vote for Crist as an independent or would have voted for him anyway.
"He's a political candidate and we generally assume political candidates of all stripes are out for themselves,'' Clark said. "It says a lot about his popularity level that it can be seen as a fairly opportunistic move, yet he still does enjoy fairly high approval ratings.''
Still, Crist is loathed by many conservative activists, who propelled Rubio from long shot to front-runner.
"I think he's new, fresh, young blood. And that's what we need," said Kathy Cook, a 62-year-old retired nurse in North Fort Myers, who said Crist lost her support when he embraced President Barack Obama and his economic stimulus package last year.
Cook was among the 22 percent of voters overall and 41 percent of Republicans who said they identified strongly with the tea party movement, which condemns the Democratic administration for deficit spending and interfering with the economy.
"If I could walk and get around, I'd probably be out there marching with them," she said. "It is time that the American people take back their government."
Not surprisingly, Rubio won more support from tea party supporters, 39 percent, than Crist, who had 29 percent. Only one in three Florida voters said they could not relate at all to the tea party movement.
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Crist's decision to bow out of the Republican primary looks like a no-brainer, with Rubio leading among GOP voters 51 to 26 percent. But Crist is handily beating Rubio among independent voters and in his home turf of the Tampa Bay area, the state's biggest political battleground.
Typically, any Republican or Democratic nominee in Florida can bank on nearly 40 percent of the vote in a general election, but Crist's nonpartisan candidacy threatens the conventional wisdom. Both Meek and Rubio need to guard against Crist peeling off Republican and Democratic votes.
"That's what (Meek) needs to focus on — Democrats who are somewhat entranced by Charlie Crist,'' Clark said. "I think it's those independents that Rubio is going to need to reach out to. He can't be losing votes to Crist.''
The poll suggests racial and ethnic undercurrents in the race. Black voters strongly favor Meek (though one in five backed Crist), who would be Florida's first African-American senator if elected. But he didn't receive support from a single Hispanic voter in the poll. The fast-growing and politically influential community leans toward Rubio, who served as the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House in 2007 and 2008.
Crist appeals the most to voters over 55 and under 34, while Rubio narrowly leads among voters 35 to 54.
Obama narrowly won Florida in 2008, but today he is a deeply polarizing figure, with 80 percent of Democrats saying they approved of his performance and 78 percent of Republicans disapproving. Overall, 48 percent of voters approved of the president's performance, including 55 percent of independents.
Even with 12 percent unemployment in Florida, Floridians are more pessimistic about the direction of the country than they are about their state. Fifty-eight percent said the country is on the wrong track, while 48 percent said Florida is on the wrong track.
Times/Herald staff writers Lee Logan and John Frank contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com and Beth Reinhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.