TALLAHASSEE — The Republican shot at unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is slipping away, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
Nelson leads Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV 48 percent to 40 percent, a three-point shift in the Democrat's favor since July.
That's the good news for Mack, who is losing by double digits in a slew of other recent surveys.
With the exception of an outlier poll from an Orlando firm, Gravis Marketing, Mack has been trailing by between 8 and 14 points in the past seven statewide polls. The average of those polls, as compiled by Real Clear Politics, lists the spread at 8 points, matching the Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
The percentage of undecided voters, however, remains unusually high at 11 percent, with six weeks to go in the race.
Mack's decline is even sharper when voters are asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. In July, 30 percent of voters surveyed said they had a favorable view of the four-term U.S. representative from Cape Coral, and his unfavorable rating was only 13 percent. Now, Mack is disliked by 33 percent of the voters surveyed, and his favorability rating has dropped to 27 percent.
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the Nov. 6 election — was conducted Sept. 17-19 for the Times, the Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll, which included respondents using landlines and cellphones, was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, a nonpartisan Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.
Mack's plummet corresponds with Nelson's aggressive TV campaign, which pounds the congressman's hard-partying youth, financial woes, divorce and attendance record in Congress.
"He's trying to make Mack look worse than he is,'' said pollster Brad Coker. "So far, it's working."
Some Republicans fear that the gap may now be too wide to close, absent a surge of help from the coattails of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"At this point, for Mack to win, Romney would probably have to pull about 53 percent of the vote," said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.
Mack has scheduled a bus tour of North and Central Florida next week, the only region where polls show that Mack is ahead. He hopes to appeal to his base and weaken Nelson's pull among conservatives in the region.
The two have agreed to one debate, on Oct. 17.
Nelson has been heavily targeted by Republicans as one of the incumbents they hope to oust in a march toward regaining a majority in the U.S. Senate.
Coker points to Nelson's low favorability ratings, which have dropped from 36 percent in the July poll to 33 percent now.
"That's probably due to the fact that people aren't really crazy about Nelson, but they're just learning about Mack,'' Coker said.
Mack avoided much of the shrapnel from his past during the primary, keeping a low profile, but that also created the opening for Nelson to profile him.
Now, third-party groups, such as the Freedom PAC, which received $1 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are coming to Mack's aid and financing a two-week pro-Mack ad that shows excerpts of his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Another ad, which Mack ran last week, is being paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In it, Mack attempts to tie Nelson with President Barack Obama, saying they are "lockstep liberals."
The liberal line was used successfully by Mack's father, the former U.S. senator of the same name, when he ran for the Senate in 1988. The elder Mack attacked his opponent, Buddy MacKay, with the line "Hey Buddy, You're a Liberal."
Nelson, who has held elected office since 1972, has kept his distance from his party's liberal wing. He built his career appealing to moderate and conservative voters, even staying away from the Democratic National Convention, except for a brief appearance to raise money.
That may explain why, according to the Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll, he gets 53 percent of the independent vote, compared with 34 percent for Mack.
Mack should be able to rely on votes from people such as John Wiegner, a 64-year-old retired U.S. Special Forces colonel from Valrico. Wiegner is a registered Republican and no fan of Nelson, but he is also lukewarm about Mack.
"The only thing going for him is his great-grandfather," said Wiegner, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., and rooted for the Philadelphia Athletics, who were managed by Mack's great-grandfather, Cornelius McGillicuddy Sr., who was also known as Connie Mack, from 1901 to 1950. "But he's not bringing anything else to the table. He's not giving me any reason to vote for him."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times reporters Michael Van Sickler and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.