Crist has grip on popularity

Floridians, however, remain divided on the state's direction.

Published May 12, 2007

Six out of 10 Floridians say Gov. Charlie Crist is doing a good or excellent job after four months in office, according to a statewide poll conducted for the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9.

Crist's handling of his job was rated "good" by 46 percent of voters and "excellent" by 16 percent, for an overall approval rating of 62 percent.

Another 22 percent rated Crist's performance as only fair, while 5 percent gave Crist a poor grade and the remaining 11 percent did not know or did not answer.

Even voters who gave Crist a passing grade expressed a wait-and-see attitude because Crist has not had much time to fix the insurance and property tax issues.

"I think he's been pretty good. I just think it's too soon to tell," said Brenda Pate, 54, a physician's assistant in suburban Tampa and a Republican who said she thinks of herself as an independent.

The report card on the Republican governor's first months in office is the result of surveys of registered Florida voters by Schroth, Eldon & Associates and the Polling Co. They were conducted by phone May 6 to May 9. The sample of 800 interviews has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

A total of 901 interviews were done statewide, and results were weighted to reflect Florida's population distribution.

The poll also shows that people in Florida do not agree with Crist's optimism.

They are evenly divided on whether Florida is going in the right direction, with 39 percent saying the state is on the right track, 38 percent saying the wrong track, and 14 percent saying it is mixed. The remainder expressed no opinion.

Crist's popularity could be leveling off

Crist's first four months as governor have been marked by a highly touted but still inconclusive effort to bring down property insurance rates; new rules easing the restoration of civil rights for felons who have completed their sentences; passage of a law mandating a paper audit trail in elections beginning in 2008; and a legislative deadlock over how to reduce property taxes and local government spending. A special session is planned for next month.

Crist's poll numbers suggest a leveling off of his sky-high popularity shown in two previous polls by Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute in which Crist's favorability was 69 percent in February and 73 percent in March.

"The honeymoon is over," pollster Thom Eldon said, "but he's still very, very popular among many groups, and I think that can be traced directly to his bipartisanship. Democrats don't feel ostracized by this guy."

Crist received a good or excellent grade from 72 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

In fact, his performance was rated good or excellent by at least 50 percent of voters in nearly every demographic category, including Democrats and African-Americans. Results for smaller samples have nearly three times as high a margin of error than the overall poll, however.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway noted that Crist's 62 percent approval rating is 10 percentage points higher than the 52 percent of the popular vote he won last fall.

She said that suggests that a number of people who did not vote for Crist now approve of his performance.

"He's been able to escape both the (President) Bush taint and the general malaise that people feel about the direction of Florida," Conway said.

However, random interviews with voters who participated in the poll suggest a growing restlessness with the happy, populist governor who as a candidate promised lower insurance and property tax bills.

Emma Branam, 82, of Zephyrhills, a retired General Motors secretary, gave Crist a "good" mark and added: "I think he's trying."

But she said the jury is still out on Crist because he has not delivered on his promise of lower homeowners' insurance premiums.

"I don't think they're going to do anything about that, and he promised in his speeches that something would be done about it," said Branam, a Democrat. "But from what I read in the papers, I don't think anything is going to happen right away."

Robert Fletcher, 76, of Plant City, a registered independent who said he voted for Crist last November, is facing a higher homeowners' insurance bill this year and is not impressed.

"Maybe I was expecting too much about property taxes and insurance, but he hasn't seemed to get anything done. I was expecting great things," Fletcher said.

Bipartisanship remains elusive

Patricia Street, 69, a St. Petersburg hairdresser, said she voted for Crist and now regrets it, after watching him champion the cause of civil rights for ex-felons.

Street said she's still disappointed that Crist refused to join President Bush at a Republican rally in Pensacola on the day before the election last November.

"I voted Republican and I got Democrat," Street said. "I'm not happy at all."

Crist has governed from the center and has conspicuously praised Democrats and included them in decisionmaking, while emphasizing the need for greater civility and bipartisan cooperation in politics.

But the poll results raise doubts about whether the public notices any difference.

Asked about the "spirit of bipartisanship" in Florida, 47 percent said it was about the same and 32 percent said it was better, with 16 percent not sure.

Times staff writers Alex Leary, Jennifer Liberto and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.