TALLAHASSEE — From her unwavering defense of Florida's ban on gay marriage to her outspoken opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Attorney General Pam Bondi is known for setting off critics.
Throw in last year's postponement of an execution so she could host a fundraiser, and an election upset of Bondi seemed possible to some.
But a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center poll shows the 48-year-old Republican incumbent cruising to re-election with a solid lead over Democrat George Sheldon and Libertarian nominee Bill Wohlsifer. The telephone survey of likely voters shows 41 percent supporting Bondi, 31 percent supporting Sheldon, 6 percent supporting Wohlsifer and 16 percent undecided.
It's no mistake that Bondi's first two TV ads focused strictly on her efforts to combat illicit drugs and human trafficking. With 18 years' experience as a state prosecutor in Tampa, Bondi is most comfortable when talking about law enforcement.
"I can only focus on doing what's right," Bondi said. "In my mind, that starts with protecting our state — against drug dealers, against people raping our kids, against human trafficking, all of those issues."
The get-tough-on-crime message is hard to dispute.
"I'm all for people who are hard on crime," said Kent Thall, a 76-year-old retired financial planner in Fruitland Park, explaining his support of Bondi.
In state politics, only the governor has more power than the attorney general. It's a position with a $128,000 salary that oversees the largest law firm in the state, 475 attorneys and more than 700 investigators and other staffers who can prosecute everything from consumer fraud, white-collar crimes, public corruption and more.
"I don't think a lot of people understand what effect the attorney general has on their lives," said Christopher McCarty, director of the UF Survey Research Center and director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
That unfamiliarity seems to have bred ambivalence about an office where the incumbent hasn't lost re-election in half a century. Bondi's name recognition from dozens of appearances as a legal analyst on Fox News, plus a campaign war chest of $5.2 million make it all the more difficult to overcome.
"Probably I will vote for Pam Bondi," said Beverly Kinard, a 62-year-old Democrat in Leesburg. "I haven't heard much about this Sheldon guy."
The poll shows Bondi's support strongest among voters 60 and older, with 49 percent support to Sheldon's 30 percent.
The telephone survey of 781 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Oct. 7-12 for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and News 13 of Orlando by the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service and Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The poll, which included respondents using land lines and cellphones, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Results were weighted by age, party registration and media market, thus allowing the results to mirror the distribution in the Florida Voter File.
Sheldon's biggest hope are undecideds.
"There's enough 'Don't Knows' out there that still give him a chance," said David Colburn, director of the Bob Graham Center. "But he hasn't reached enough Democrats, let alone voters generally, to be a name that's recognized as somebody who is a viable candidate to be attorney general."
The 67-year-old's experience runs the gamut. He represented Tampa in the Florida House for eight years, served as deputy attorney general between 1999 and 2002, ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2002, and, until last year, earned $177,000 a year as assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
He has portrayed Bondi as an extremist looking out for the interests of corporate America at the expense of the middle class. After Sheldon for weeks campaigned on the fact that she hadn't intervened in any electric utility case, Bondi earlier this month urged Duke Energy to refund customers $54 million for the costs of a nuclear plant that was never built.
"The attorney general ought to be focused on consumer protection, ought to be focused on really trying to hold down our utility rates," Sheldon said.
He made those comments last month when he announced the formation of a bipartisan committee, Democrats and moderate Republicans, which would raise money for his campaign. Yet through Oct. 10, the committee hasn't raised a dime for Sheldon.
Without money to get his message out, voters won't hear him. Sheldon has yet to air a TV ad, while Bondi has aired two, with money for more.
"When people see him and interact with him, they like him," Colburn said. "But I don't think he's getting big crowds, which is a big limitation."
Times staff writers Katie Mettler and Weston Phippen contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.