TALLAHASSEE — Republican Mitt Romney's coattails do not appear to be strong enough to carry U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV into the U.S. Senate, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll.
Democrat Bill Nelson, 70, a two-term senator from Orlando, retains a six-point lead in the high profile matchup, as Republican ticket-splitters and independent voters continue to provide the crucial margin Nelson needs to return to Washington.
Nelson leads Mack 49 percent to 43 percent and gets one out of every nine Romney voters — a sign that voters are looking for "someone who can work across the aisle'' in the closely-divided Senate, said Brad Coker, director of the nonpartisan Mason Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted the poll.
"Independents aren't sold that Republicans have the answers, and they aren't sold that Democrats have the answers,'' he said.
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Oct. 30-Nov. 1 for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Central Florida News 13. Respondents were reached through land-lines and cell phones. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Mack, 45, a four-term congressman from Fort Myers, trails Nelson even as Romney leads Democratic President Barack Obama by a six-point margin in the state in the same poll.
Mack performs well in north and southwest Florida, where he is popular among retirees, military voters and whites. "But he's going to lose it because Nelson is going to swamp him in southeast Florida" where Mack does not have a strong ground game to counter Nelson's support in the Democrat-rich region, Coker said.
Mack has tethered his campaign to Romney's machine in Florida, telling audiences that if "Mitt Romney wins, I win." Nelson has kept his distance from the president on the campaign trail until this weekend, when he will appear with Obama in Hollywood today.
Nelson reported raising $12.7 million by mid October, double what Mack has raised, and has received some advertising help from left-leaning outside groups.
But Mack was helped by an estimated $20 million in advertising from outside conservative groups, such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, which ran attacks ads targeting Nelson.
Despite the ad advantage, Mack has struggled to recover from Nelson's early television attacks, which lambasted him for his hard-partying youth, his financial woes and his missed votes in Congress.
"Mack's problem is that Nelson defined him early with a lot of those ads about his personal background,'' Coker said.
Mack and the third-party groups countered with ads that underscored Nelson's votes on issues unpopular with a majority of voters in Florida, such as the Affordable Care Act and the vote on the debt ceiling.
Mack's attacks against Nelson influenced 43 percent of the voters surveyed, the poll found, while Nelson's attacks on Mack influenced 38 percent of the voters.
But the attacks against Nelson were not enough to narrow the gap, Coker said, which widened one point from the five-point margin in the last Mason-Dixon poll conducted Oct. 8-10.
Nelson, who has been in public office nearly 40 years in Florida, had established a reputation as a moderate on many key issues, until siding with Obama in the last four years, Coker said.
Nonetheless, Florida voters perceive him more favorably than Mack and Obama, the poll showed. For example, 48 percent said they believe that Nelson was "more likely to support policies that will improve the economy,'' compared to 44 percent for Mack and 44 percent for Obama.
Nelson had similar margins on voter perception on policies to improve health care, and he enjoyed the widest margin over Mack when voters were asked who they trust more to look out for Florida's interests in Washington. Nelson was favored, 48-42 percent.
"He has a very responsive office,'' said Sharon Armuelles, 65, a retired lawyer from Miramar and Nelson supporter. She frequently sends emails to Nelson's office telling him what position she would like him to take on issues and "he always responds."
The barrage of negative ads has complicated the decision for voter Calvin Taylor, 63, a Republican and retired air traffic controller from Belleview.
He doesn't like what he has seen about Mack's past and is "turned off" by Nelson's votes with Obama, but he's leaning toward a vote for Mack. "In this case, to be honest with you, you heard that old saying — voting for the lesser of two evils? That's what I'm doing,'' he said.
Redetha Banfield, a Fort Pierce Democrat, is one of the ticket-splitters who is helping Nelson. She said she has already voted for Romney and Nelson, and is supporting Nelson mainly because she doesn't like Mack.
"If you believe all the ads, which I tend to believe most of them, I just don't think he would make a good senator," Banfield said.
Also hurting Mack are two no party affiliation candidates on the ballot: Chris Borgia, an Iraqi war veteran from Fort Lauderdale, and Bill Gaylor, a Marine Corps veteran from Indian Harbor Beach. Borgia draws 3 percent of the vote, according to voters surveyed, while Gaylor gets 1 percent.
"That 4 percent comes right out of Mack,'' Coker said.
Times/Herald staff writers Joyce Alvarez, Tia Mitchell and Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas