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Crist likely to coast onto ballot, poll shows

The Democratic primary for governor is more of a question mark. Statewide, Jim Davis leads, but many in his party are still undecided.

Published August 12, 2006

Jim Davis is opening up a lead in the still unpredictable Democratic gubernatorial primary, while on the Republican side Charlie Crist barely looks like he's in a race, a new St. Petersburg Times poll finds.

Strong home-base support in the Tampa Bay area is giving U.S. Rep. Davis a 35 percent to 21 percent statewide lead over state Sen. Rod Smith. But with 44 percent of the Democrats surveyed undecided, that primary could go either way.

"You really can't call it, but you would much rather be Jim Davis at this point," said pollster Kellyanne Conway, noting that either Democrat could break out in the coming weeks.

In the Republican primary between two seasoned statewide candidates, Attorney General Crist leads Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher 50 percent to 26 percent. To have a shot at winning the nomination, Gallagher would need to win over all of the 24 percent of Republicans who said they were undecided.

"Much like a long-awaited heavyweight fight between two champions that ends in a 90-second knockout, the gubernatorial primary between Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher opened early for Crist and stayed that way," said pollster Tom Eldon.

The St. Petersburg Times telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Aug. 6-9 by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients are primarily Democrats, and the Polling Co., which works mainly with Republicans.

The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percent. For questions asked of Democratic primary voters only, the margin of error is plus or minus 5.2 percent, and 5.6 percent for Republican primary voters only.

Republicans have two high profile political figures to choose from, but barely three weeks before the Sept. 5 primary, the poll underscores how little known the Democratic candidates remain after nearly nine months of campaigning.

"With the Republicans being in power, you hear all about them, but you never hear about the Democrats," said undecided Democrat John O'Connell, a retired postal worker in Sebring.

James Miller, a 62-year-old Democrat in Fort Myers, hasn't made up his mind about the Democratic primary, but he thinks he knows how he'll vote in November. "Probably Charlie Crist," Miller said. "I like his past record with the governor Jeb Bush. I don't see anybody that I feel is as qualified as him, even Democrats."

The good news for Republicans is that Gov. Bush is leaving office with 56 percent of voters giving him good marks as governor and a stunning 85 percent of Republicans saying he's doing a good or excellent job. Forty-five percent of all voters say Florida is heading in the right direction and 41 percent see it heading in the wrong direction.

Despite the thumbs up for Jeb Bush, the poll shows some ominous signs for Republicans this fall.

Only 34 percent of voters rate the president's performance favorably, and more than eight in ten give bad marks to the Republican-controlled Congress. Only half of the Republicans said they would support Republican Katherine Harris over incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, and only half the Republicans said the country is heading in the right direction.

"The men in the Republican Party really have their hands across their chests saying, 'Harrumph, I really might sit it out to send a message,' " said Conway.

In the Democratic governor's race, Smith leads Davis, 35 percent to 27 percent, in North Florida and the Panhandle, while the two are tied in Democrat-rich South Florida. But in the Tampa Bay area, where more than one in five primary voters come from, Davis is crushing Smith 61 percent to 10 percent. Smith is even with Davis among women and voters 65 and older, while Davis leads handily among men and all other age groups.

Nothing moves poll numbers faster than TV ads, and Smith, a former prosecutor, is known as a strong stump speaker. He started his TV ad campaign 10 days before Davis, on July 28. But Smith has since switched firms producing his ads, and Davis this week started airing ads highlighting his support from former Sen. Bob Graham.

As of Aug. 4, Davis had $2.85-million left in his campaign account, while Smith had $1.45-million. The state Democratic Party has paid for some Smith ads, though, and it's unclear whether Smith might undercut Davis' money advantage through party-funded ads.

"He needs to communicate effectively," Eldon said of Smith. "There's a general impression that the initial ad campaign fell flat, and that's possibly why Davis opened up a lead."

Meanwhile, Crist has barely had to look over his shoulder in a race once expected to be a tough battle. His latest fundraising reports show him with $5.6-million in his campaign account, compared with $2.9-million for Gallagher.

Gallagher, once widely viewed as a leader in the moderate wing of the Republican Party, has campaigned hard to win over social conservatives. There's little evidence that's working, but plenty that he's turning off moderate Republicans.

"I don't view someone who is anti- stem cell research as getting my vote. (Gallagher) emphasized that. Charlie Crist seemed to be speaking more to me," said Jim Pello, a 29-year-old Republican in Feather Sound, who studied both candidates' platforms and on Friday had just completed his absentee ballot for Crist.

Judy Reinach, a Republican activist in Key Biscayne, said she has known and admired Gallagher for years, but is going with Crist. "He's not as far right conservative as Tom has become," she said.

Crist is from St. Petersburg, and the poll shows him beating Gallagher in the Tampa Bay area 66 percent to 22 percent. The attorney general is leading handily in every other region of the state, except Gallagher's South Florida home turf, where they are statistically tied.

"I like Tom Gallagher a lot, and Crist is good too," said Emma Lewis, a Republican senior from Boca Raton. "I'm kind of torn between the two. Tom seems to be losing ground and I don't know why. I think Crist is going to be my favorite."

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Joni James and Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

[Last modified August 12, 2006, 01:59:17]

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