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New governor's name is ...

Crist. Or Davis. The race remains too close to call.

Published October 28, 2006

[Getty Images]
Attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, at a campaign stop Thursday in Miami, holds a lead in the polls but without a decisive margin.

[Getty Images]
Democratic nominee for governor Jim Davis, at a campaign stop this week in Aventura, may be getting a boost from Republicans' recent stumbles.

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Republican Charlie Crist may be trouncing Jim Davis in money and sheer number of TV commercials, but a new St. Petersburg Times poll shows Davis remains solidly in the game as Election Day looms.

The poll found Attorney General Crist leading Democratic U.S. Rep. Davis by six percentage points, 48 percent to 42 percent, with 10 percent of voters still undecided. Independent voters stand to tip the election Nov. 7, with one in five still unsure between the two.

"I would not put my hand in my pockets and place a heavy bet on either one of these candidates. I think it's too close to call," said pollster Rob Schroth. "I think on Election Day, it's going to be close."

The Oct. 22-25 statewide telephone survey of 800 voters was conducted for the St. Petersburg Times by Schroth/Eldon & Associates, which usually works with Democrats, and the Polling Co., which typically works with Republicans. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

"The fact that the governor's race is still in play shows that Florida is still a red and blue state - more of a purple state," said pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Co.

Crist is clearly better positioned, but both candidates head into the final stretch with some advantages.

For Davis, who has been unable to afford nearly as much TV advertising as Crist, anti-Republican sentiment is a big help. More than four in 10 Davis supporters said they're backing him mostly because of his political party or because they don't trust or dislike his opponent.

"As far as politicians go Charlie Crist is probably not that bad, but on the other hand he's a Republican, and right now I'm not too happy with the Republican Party," said 57-year-old Wes McKenzie, a county employee from St. Petersburg who has no party affiliation and has already voted for Davis.

Crist, though, is winning over about one in five Democrats, while Davis is backed by about one in 10 Republicans. The attorney general also is effectively tied with Davis among independents, and was leading 47 percent to 42 percent among woman. Democrats typically need an advantage in both those groups to win statewide.

What's more, the voters surveyed this week also trusted Crist slightly more than Davis to improve public schools, stand up to special interests and handle hurricane insurance reform. All are centerpieces of Davis' campaign message.

"I want to vote for Crist because he says he's going to try to do something about property taxes and insurance, so hopefully he's not lying," said 59-year-old Republican nurse Barbara Martin of Cape Coral, who has heard little about Davis.

Crist was leading Davis in every region except Democrat-rich South Florida, where the Tampa congressman leads 55 percent to 38 percent. Ground zero for the race is Tampa Bay, home of both Crist and Davis, and the attorney general leads there 48 percent to 40 percent.

In increasingly Republican Hillsborough County, Davis' home county, Crist has a 12 percentage point lead. In Crist's home county of Pinellas the attorney general leads by six percentage points.

"I don't think Davis has done very well for us in Congress and in Washington, so what makes you think he's going to do better as governor," asked David Hammons, a retired Democrat from Largo. "Crist seems like he wants to do what's right for the people."

Republicans in Florida have a far better voter mobilization operation than Democrats, but the poll points to potential trouble spots for Crist in energizing the conservative base.

A social moderate who is ambivalent on restricting abortions and espouses a "live and let live" philosophy, Crist had a smaller lead in conservative North Florida, 47 percent to 37 percent, than Republicans typically expect. A small majority of voters who described themselves as born again Christians backed Crist.

"You have to wonder if there's still some doubt about whether Charlie Crist is a true conservative," said pollster Tom Eldon.

That's precisely the concern of 31-year-old Shane Abbott, a Republican pharmacist from the Panhandle town of De Funiak Springs. For the first time, he may skip voting in the governor's race.

"I can't feel good about voting for either one of them," Abbott said. "Morally, ethically , I see no Christian values or a large lack of Christian values."

The poll found Florida voters, if not happy with the way things are going in their state, then at least far happier with Florida's direction than the country's.

They were evenly divided when asked whether things are moving in the right or wrong direction in the Sunshine State.

Davis made history in picking the first African-American running mate, former state Sen. Daryl Jones, but the poll found no evidence that's helping Davis. Democrats in Florida typically win nine of 10 African-American votes, but the St. Petersburg Times poll found 69 percent of black voters with Davis and 16 percent with Crist. Fourteen percent were undecided.

Among Hispanic voters, another heavily coveted voter group, Crist led 59 percent to 32 percent. But the margins of error for both minority groups are high - plus or minus nearly 10 percent for African-Americans and nearly 11 percent for Hispanics.

The strikingly different takes of African-American and Hispanic Floridians highlight the nuances of the state's diverse electorate.

"Florida can really teach a lesson for the rest of the country as a bellwether in terms of not muddying together the so-called 'minority vote,' " Conway said.

So how would the pollsters advise the candidates to finish off the race for the Governor's mansion?

Crist, they said, needs to closely ally himself with popular outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush. And, Conway suggested, he should probably avoid becoming too negative in his campaign given that he has been winning over Democrats, independents and women who are likely to be alienated by attacks on Davis.

Davis, on the other hand, needs to ramp up attacks on Crist to raise doubts about him among swing voters, which could be tough given Davis' limited resources. The pollsters also said Davis should work to mobilize African-American voters and stress his opposition - and Crist's support for - how the unpopular FCAT test is used in Florida.

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 00:45:11]

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