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Independent voters are leaning toward the Democrat in a must-win state for Republican McCain.

Independent Florida voters are on the verge of killing Sen. John McCain's hopes for the presidency.

A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll shows Sen. Barack Obama leading McCain 49 percent to 42 percent in this state McCain cannot afford to lose. The biggest factor? Less partisan independent voters moving to Obama by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.

"Right now this election is about independents - independents and the economy," said pollster Tom Eldon. "Obama is clearly establishing himself as the candidate of the independents."

At a time when economic anxiety trumps all issues in Florida, about half of the voters surveyed - and almost six in 10 independents - said Obama has a better plan to improve the economy, while one in three voters said McCain does. Forty-five percent said Obama has shown the most leadership on the economy, and 34 percent said McCain.

"The predominant color in Florida right now is neither blue nor red - it's green," said pollster Kellyanne Conway. "The financial concerns, money concerns, dominate voters' calculus."

Conway, whose company works mostly with Republicans, questioned the effectiveness of McCain's recent campaign strategy.

"Trying to connect Barack Obama to Bill Ayers, rather than connect McCain to the average voter in the economy has ... been dubious," she said, referring to the 1960s radical who was an Obama acquaintance years ago.

That's certainly the view of independent voter Pam Nadeau, a 59-year-old homemaker from Clearwater who participated in the poll and voted early for Obama. She said she used to hold McCain in high regard but has come to resent his campaign tactics.

"I've watched them insinuate Obama is 'palling around with terrorists,'" said Nadeau, repeating a quote Gov. Sarah Palin made a central part of her stump speech. "He knows it's not true, and he's doing it only to sway voters. Dividing America is the wrong thing to do."

The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Oct. 20-22, for the Times, Bay News 9and Miami Herald. The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon and Associates 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.

It is virtually impossible for McCain to win the presidency without Florida's 27 electoral votes, and the poll suggests Florida remains within reach for the Arizona senator.

Eldon noted that McCain needs to boost his lagging numbers in traditional Republican strongholds including southwest Florida, one of the most economically devastated areas of the state. Florida's top battleground of Tampa Bay is predictably close, with the poll showing Obama with 48 percent support and McCain with 44 percent, nearly within the margin of error.

McCain leads Florida Hispanic voters 47 percent to 40 percent, while 86 percent of African-Americans back Obama. McCain leads 49 percent to 43 percent among white voters overall, but Obama has an 11-point lead among women and is nearly tied with McCain among men.

Among voters 65 and older, McCain and Obama are in a dead heat, with 11 percent still undecided.

"If there's any more fluidness left in this race - and God knows there probably is because this is 2008 and nothing is predictable - it may rest with these seniors," said Conway.

The economic downturn has hit Florida particularly hard, but anxious Floridians feel better about their state than the country. More than two in three voters said the country is heading in the wrong direction, while 53 percent said Florida is headed in the wrong direction.

Gov. Charlie Crist also is managing to remain insulated from the anti-Republican climate, with 41 percent of voters saying he is doing a good job and 11 percent saying Crist is doing an excellent job.

More than a million voters already have cast ballots in Florida, either by absentee ballot or at early voting sites, and McCain and Obama were tied among people surveyed who already had voted. Thirty-seven percent of those polled said they planned to vote at early voting sites, 15 percent intended to vote by absentee ballot, and 44 percent said they would vote on Election Day.

So far, of the more than 800,000 people who have voted by absentee ballot, Republicans have an advantage of nearly 130,000 ballots. But of the more than 482,000 who voted early between Monday and Wednesday, 55 percent are Democrats and 30 percent are Republican, a lead of 117,000 for Democrats. Of course, these numbers don't reflect how people voted, only the party affiliation of the voters.

If the trend continues, Democrats should overtake Republicans on already cast votes any day now. However, among those planning to vote on Election Day, the poll found McCain had a 10-point advantage over Obama.

A month ago, when McCain and Obama were essentially tied in Florida, the Republican had a four-point lead among independent voters. After three debates and the financial crisis, Obama now leads independents 57 percent to 22 percent.

McCain's biggest strength going into the election - his appeal to moderate swing voters - disappeared as the campaign appeared more focused on energizing staunch conservatives, Eldon said.

"He's lost his connection with the independent voter," Eldon said. "The Palin selection, some of the rhetoric, the obsession with William Ayers during an economic crisis, has served to alienate the independent voter. He served up meat for his base but he starved independents."

A Mason-Dixon poll released Wednesday found McCain leading Obama by 1 percentage point in Florida, while a Quinnipiac University poll released early Thursday showed Obama leading by 5 points.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

49% Voters who say that if the election were held today they would vote for Sen. Barack Obama, compared with 42 percent for Sen. John McCain.

45% Voters who say Obama has shown the most leadership during the economic crisis, compared with 34 percent who said McCain. Thirteen percent said neither.

49% Voters who say Obama has the best plan to improve the economy, while 34 percent said McCain.

52% Voters who say Gov. Charlie Crist is doing a good or excellent job.

42% Voters who say they expect their personal economic situation to be better over the next year, while 39 percent expect it to stay the same and 12 percent expect it to get worse.

53% Voters who say things in Florida are headed in the wrong direction, while 28 percent say things are headed in the right direction and 10 percent say the direction is mixed.

67% Voters who say things in the U.S. are headed in the wrong direction, while 16 percent say the right direction and 9 percent say the direction is mixed.

Note: Poll was among 800 voters on Oct. 20, 21 and 22; margin of error is 3.5 percent.