TALLAHASSEE — The Republican candidates in the three races for Florida Cabinet posts are gaining traction with independent voters and slightly leading their Democratic rivals, according to a new poll that suggests 2010 is shaping up to be a good year for conservatives.
But it's not a cakewalk.
The leads of Pam Bondi for attorney general, Adam Putnam for agriculture commissioner and Jeff Atwater for chief financial officer are well within the 4-percentage point error margin of the Mason-Dixon Research & Associates survey of likely Florida voters.
The poll shows far clearer results when it comes to the Legislature's plan to scale back a constitutional limit on classroom sizes. It appears headed for certain defeat at the Nov. 2 polls.
Another proposed constitutional amendment, which would give citizens a vote in growth management plans, has a fair chance of passing.
While the Cabinet races are far tougher to predict, the poll indicates Republicans are enjoying the support of voters with no party affiliation — the crucial swing vote in Florida.
"It's a subtle sign that this is looking like a Republican year," said Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon pollster. "I don't think there's a Democratic pollster out there who isn't seeing this and who isn't worried about it."
Still, a Mason-Dixon poll Thursday showed Democrat Alex Sink leading Republican Rick Scott in the governor's race by 7 percentage points. But a rival Rasmussen Reports survey Friday said Scott leads by 6.
Though their numbers differ, both pollsters' surveys indicate that conservative voters are far more fired up this election season than liberals, many of whom are dispirited as the approval ratings fall for the Democratic Congress and President Obama, who won Florida in 2008 in a Democratic landslide year.
But Coker cautions that at least a fourth of the electorate is undecided in the Cabinet contests, so the races could go either way.
That's not the case when it comes Amendment 8, the Legislature's proposal to save money by preventing the so-called "hard caps'' of the constitutional class size law from taking effect.
Only 35 percent of likely voters said they'll support Amendment 8. A majority of voters, 53 percent, oppose changing the class size limitations, which were enshrined in the Florida Constitution by voters in 2002.
It takes 60 percent of the vote to amend the Florida Constitution — a provision added to the Constitution by voters at the urging of the Republican-led Legislature, which was growing increasingly frustrated with citizens-led initiatives.
One initiative has proved particularly threatening to the business interests that help fund the races of state and local lawmakers: The so-called "Hometown Democracy'' plan that appears on Amendment 4.
Funded by liberal-leaning interests concerned with urban sprawl, Amendment 4 would require a vote of local citizens when their cities or counties seek to change their growth plan, which are often amended to approve new developments and construction.
If the election were held now, Amendment 4 would lose — but only because of the 60 percent limitation on constitutional changes, according to the poll, which shows 53 percent of voters favor the amendment and only 26 percent oppose it.
With the Nov. 2 elections so close, Coker said, the fact that more than half of the electorate likes the amendment bodes well for its passage.
Support is particularly strong among Democrats, in part because of the backing of liberal-leaning environmentalists.
But Republicans back the measure as well, "perhaps because many have an anti-bureaucrat or anti-politician mind-set and believe that more control for citizens is a better thing," Coker said.
In the Cabinet races, Bondi appears to be the best known candidate and garners the most votes in her race against Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. Coker said Bondi's stint as a telegenic Fox News personality, her home base of Tampa Bay — the state's swing-vote region — and her more contested primary race helps push her past Gelber. Bondi leads Gelber 38-34.
In the race for agriculture commissioner, former U.S. Rep. Putnam leads former Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic Party chief Scott Maddox 36-32.
The state CFO race is the closest, with Republican Senate President Atwater of North Palm Beach leading former Democratic Rep. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee by a 29-27 margin. Nearly 4 in 10 voters are undecided in that race.
Coker said the CFO race has echoes of the 2006 contest in which former Senate President Tom Lee lost to Alex Sink.
"Once again, you have a Senate president and a female candidate who's giving him a run," Coker said.