By Erika Bolstad
WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Nelson faces a tough re-election campaign in a year when Florida voters are dissatisfied with the economy, Congress and President Barack Obama, according to a new Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
The survey, released Friday, shows Nelson, a Democrat, with a three-point lead over Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, 45-42 percent. Mack is the leading contender in a five-man Republican primary field. Thirteen percent were undecided.
"Nelson has a much tougher race than he's probably had in a long time," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company that conducted the poll for the media organizations.
But Coker also noted that the Florida U.S. Senate race is "still in its formative stages" and is overshadowed by the Republican presidential primary. That will change as the GOP presidential primary contest comes to an end in Florida this week and Republicans turn their attention to winning a majority in the U.S. Senate. The GOP Senate primary is Aug. 14.
Those surveyed for the poll reflected Coker's assessment of the slow-to-ignite U.S. Senate contest: "I haven't followed the state races," admitted Caronta Florence, 22, who just left the military and enrolled at the College of Central Florida.
"There has been a lack of publicity," said Mari Elena Barrera, 71, a retired accountant from Miami.
Mack - whose father held the Senate seat that Nelson now has - continues to have one great advantage in the race: name recognition.
Statewide, 31 percent of voters have a favorable impression of Connie Mack, though there's no distinguishing whether voters are thinking of him or his father, who shares the same name. Just 19 percent of voters did not recognize Mack's name.
At this stage in his long Florida political career, Nelson should probably have better name recognition, Coker said.
The poll didn't ask about Marco Rubio's name recognition, but if it had, Coker said, it's almost certain the junior Florida senator would have had higher name recognition than Nelson.
Forty-two percent of voters recognize Nelson's name and have a favorable impression of him; 24 percent view him unfavorably. Another 22 percent are neutral, and 12 percent don't recognize Nelson's name at all.
"For a guy that's been a two-term senator, he was in the Cabinet for years, he ran for governor, he was a member of Congress before that," Coker said. "And you still have 12 percent of the state that have never heard of him. To be around that long on the state scene . . . he really just seems to be under the radar."
Mack is clearly the front-runner among Republicans, the poll found. Among likely Republican voters, Mack leads former Sen. George LeMieux 38-12 percent. Trailing with 7 percent is Mike McCalister, followed by Adam Hasner with 4 percent and Craig Miller with 1 percent. About 38 percent of GOP voters, however, are undecided.
When it comes to fundraising, Nelson continues to hold a multimillion-dollar advantage. His re-election campaign has $8.5 million in the bank with about $1.4 million deposited during the final three months of 2011, the campaign said earlier this month.
That's more money than any other Democratic U.S. senator up for re-election this year.
Mack has raised $758,394 since announcing his candidacy, his campaign said. The official reports won't be available until this week.
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters - all likely to vote in the general election - was conducted from Jan. 24 to 26 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13.
The survey included an over-sampling of 500 likely Republican primary voters for the GOP primary questions. The margin of error overall is 3.5 percentage points. For GOP primary questions, the margin of error is 4.5 percentage points.
Times/Herald staff writers Alexandra Leon and Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report.