President Barack Obama is in trouble in Florida as he begins his re-election campaign.
A new Sachs/Mason-Dixon poll found that only 34 percent of independent voters in Florida — always the key to winning — approve of Obama's performance, and that either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would beat the president in Florida if the election were held today.
"If one of the top-tier Republicans gets the nomination, it will be a real fight for Florida," said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker.
The April 4-7 telephone poll found Romney slightly leading Huckabee among Republican primary voters, 23 percent to 18 percent. They were trailed by business magnate Donald Trump with 13 percent, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 11, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty with 8.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's support has plummeted since she was hailed as the newest GOP superstar three years ago. Only 5 percent of Republican voters said they would vote for her as the nominee, and she would lose overwhelmingly to Obama in Florida.
Other potential Republican primary candidates in the poll included Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who earned 4 percent support; U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 3 percent; U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, 1 percent; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, 1 percent; and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour not registering any support.
Despite the likelihood of sanctions from the national GOP for violating the party's primary calendar schedule, legislative leaders expect Florida will be the earliest megastate to weigh in to ensure the state's Republicans play a key role in picking the nominee.
"It's going to be a Romney state if Huckabee doesn't get in,'' said Coker, adding that Pawlenty could be a factor if he does well in the earlier states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Tallahassee-based Ron Sachs Communications commissioned the poll. Mason-Dixon surveyed 800 registered Florida voters and the margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
For the GOP primary results, the pollster surveyed 400 Republican voters and the margin of error is 5 percentage points.
Overall, 43 percent of voters surveyed approved of Obama's performance and 56 percent disapproved.
Independent voters helped narrowly deliver Florida to Obama in 2008, but the poll showed 56 percent of independent voters disapprove of his performance.
It's tough for Republicans to win the presidency without Florida's 29 electoral votes. Obama won America's biggest swing state by 3 percentage points in 2008, and Obama has signaled he will fight hard for the state again in 2012.
"President Obama's hopes for re-election will either be warmed or eclipsed by the 'Sunshine State.' Already, it's clear that he has considerable work to do to make his incumbency an asset, rather than a liability, in a Florida that has drifted more conservative than even four years ago," said Ron Sachs.
In hypothetical general election matchups, Romney beat Obama 48 percent to 43 percent, and Huckabee beat him 49 percent to 44 percent. But Palin loses to Obama 51 percent to 39 percent and Trump — who has talked up Florida as key to his potential campaign — trails 48 percent to 40 percent.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Florida has 29 electoral votes starting in 2012. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number.