Deep worries about the economy are setting the stage for another presidential cliff-hanger in Florida.
A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll shows a neck-and-neck race, with Republican John McCain backed by 47 percent of registered Florida voters surveyed, Democrat Barack Obama by 45 percent.
"Once again, Florida is going to be a pivotal battleground in this election as it has been for the past two elections,'' said pollster Tom Eldon. "Anyone who wrote Florida off as anything but a battleground state needs to turn in their pundit cards."
McCain, 72, has a lead within the poll's margin of error and a double-digit advantage in terms of who Florida voters trust more as an effective commander in chief. But widespread economic worries make this must-win state for McCain well within reach for Obama, 47.
Strengthening the economy was cited as the top priority at least three times more often than any other issue, and 49 percent of voters trusted Obama more to improve the economy, compared to 40 percent for McCain. Among crucial independent voters, 53 percent trusted Obama more on the economy, compared to just 30 percent trusting McCain.
"Sen. McCain will need to bridge the gap to remain in the lead in Florida,'' said pollster Kellyanne Conway.
Tampa Bay usually decides the outcome of statewide races, and Obama was narrowly leading McCain in the region, 48 percent to 44 percent. Obama had a 20-point lead in southeast Florida, while McCain had a 19-point advantage in north Florida.
The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Sept. 14-17 for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald.
The poll was done by SEA Polling and Strategic Design, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Co., which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
One third of the interviews were conducted before "Black Monday," when the financial crisis deepened with the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers, which was followed by the Federal Reserve's bailout of insurance giant AIG, so the poll could be understating voters' financial worries.
Sheila Cooper, an independent from southeastern Hillsborough County, lost her job as a state park ranger in March and she still hasn't found work despite "looking for anything, even in retail." She's worried about the economy, particularly the failure of major financial institutions, and is backing McCain because this is no time for a rookie.
"I like what they've had to say so far, and with everything going on now with the stock market, they want to make changes and make it right," said Cooper, 50, of Lithia, noting that Sarah Palin on the ticket solidified her support for McCain.
More than six in 10 voters said the country is headed in the wrong direction, and just 29 percent said President Bush is doing a good or excellent job.
"We had Republicans eight years, we don't need Republicans again," said Democrat Ola Mae Loggins, 79, from the tiny Jefferson County town of Lamont, near the Georgia border. She's voting for Obama.
"Mister, I don't have very much education. But the way they've done a heap of things, if I was in the chair, I would do better than that," she said.
Only 13 percent of voters said their personal economic situation had improved in the past two years, while 43 percent said it was worse.
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Still, there is some optimism. One in three voters expects their personal financial situation to improve in the next year, and nearly half of them expect it to stay the same.
Both McCain and Obama appear to have their own parties solidly behind them, with roughly eight in 10 Republicans and Democrats supporting their party nominee. But there are signs Obama still has shoring up to do: 17 percent of former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters are backing McCain.
McCain had an 11-point advantage among men, and a 17-point lead among all white voters. Obama had a 5-point lead among women, and the support of more than nine in 10 African-Americans. Hispanic voters, heavily targeted by both campaigns, favored McCain over Obama by 10 points.
"If he's going to win Florida he's going to need to really bolster his numbers among Hispanics,'' Conway said of Obama, noting that Hispanics were among several key groups of voters where Clinton had been strong. "When Obama put (Joe) Biden on the ticket and not Hillary, he definitely lost his calculator in Florida."
The age contrasts are sharp. McCain led Obama among voters 65 and older by 7 points, and Obama led by 10 points among those under 35, who tend to be less reliable voters. McCain narrowly led Obama among voters 35 to 64.
A big question remains: If voters are so hungry for change and so worried about the economy, issues they say favor Obama, why isn't the Illinois senator doing better?
"With all the environmental dynamics stacked up against Republicans — an unpopular president, an unpopular war, an economy going south, a government bailout — Obama should be at 54 percent and staying there,'' said Conway. "People have a love affair with the concept of change, and then are scared to death to effectuate it, by and large. People don't like to take risks on unknown commodities."
The first of three presidential debates comes Friday, and pollster Eldon said it will be crucial.
"Until these two men stand up in a presidential debate and the nation has a chance to take the measure of Barack Obama vs. John McCain, then we're not going to see any massive movement,'' he said.
Staff writers Wes Allison and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.