Clinton, Giuliani lead in Florida

But especially among Republicans -- and with months to go -- other leaders could emerge.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published May 13, 2007

Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are leading their closest presidential rivals 2-1 in Florida, the battleground state suddenly poised to have a major say in deciding the presidential nominees.

But a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows that despite their big leads -- Clinton tops the Democratic field by 23 percentage points, and Giuliani leads the GOP slate by 14 -- the frontrunners have not secured Florida's support nearly nine months before the primaries.

That's especially true for the GOP, where one in three Republicans is either undecided or supporting someone not yet in the race.

"On the Republican side, it's still wide open," said pollster Kellyanne Conway.

The survey found 29 percent of Florida Republican voters backing Giuliani, while John McCain and Mitt Romney were statistically tied at 15 percent and 14 percent respectively. Seventeen percent were undecided.

"You cannot make the argument that someone at 29 percent has locked up the nomination that's still months away," Conway said.

The Democratic primary also looks unpredictable, but the poll shows New York Sen. Clinton stronger in Florida than polls show her nationwide or in other key states. Among Democratic voters polled, 42 percent supported Clinton, 19 percent backed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, 12 percent John Edwards and 17 percent were undecided.

"Hillary is very close to pulling this primary away," said pollster Tom Eldon, noting that even among African-American Florida Democrats Clinton had a comfortable lead over Obama.

The telephone survey of 901 voters was conducted May 6 to May 9 for the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 from a list of registered Florida voters by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients are primarily Democrats, and the Polling Company, which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent overall, and 5 percent for the Democratic primary and 5.4 percent for the Republican primary.

The Republican contest is tighter in the bay area than statewide. Among Republicans in the region, Giuliani has 25 percent, followed by 19 percent for McCain. In Pinellas County, a bastion for moderate Republicans, McCain led Giuliani 26 percent to 18 percent.

In Hillsborough County, 31 percent of Republicans said they backed Giuliani, compared with 14 percent for McCain. One in four Hillsborough Republicans supported former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, an actor who hasn't decided if he will run. Statewide, Thompson had 9 percent support, essentially the same as potential candidate Newt Gingrich.

"Fred Thompson's numbers make me think if anyone's going to catch fire, it's going to be him," Eldon said.

While nearly one in three Democrats were "very satisfied" with the field of candidates, only 15 percent of Republicans felt that way.

"I'm discouraged with what I see with the Republican ticket running for president," said Patricia Street, a 69-year-old hairdresser from St. Petersburg who is Republican. "I don't see any of them as strong, except for Fred Thompson."

The presidential campaign is under way earlier than ever before, and more than seven in 10 Florida voters said they already are following the race somewhat closely or very closely.

Florida stands to play a much greater role in the nominating process than it has in years past because state lawmakers moved the state's primary election from March to January 29. That makes Florida the first megastate to weigh in on the nominations, followed by some 20 states expected to vote on Feb. 5.

"Florida would be great to construct a few more private jet runways to accommodate all the activity you're going to get, " Conway said. "There is no presidential candidate of either political party who can write off Florida (in the primary) and pretend to be a serious contender."

But the path to overtaking the frontrunner looks tougher for the Democrats than the Republicans.

"I tell you, I've said for 20 years now, what this country needs is a woman president, and I still feel that way," said 70-year-old Bill Vierheller, a retired city employee in Clearwater.

Clinton's support among Democrats drops 9 percentage points in the conservative Panhandle, but she still leads the field in every region and demographic group, including Hispanic and African-American voters.

"Memo to Bill Richardson: You might want to remind people in Florida that you are Hispanic," Conway said of the New Mexico governor barely registering in the polls.

Edwards is stronger among white voters than other demographic groups, and Obama leads the field among voters under age 35. Young voters, though, often don't turn out in big numbers.

Among the Republicans, Giuliani is especially strong in South Florida, McCain is strongest in the Panhandle, with its heavy military concentration, and Romney is strongest in Central Florida.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has been organizing a particularly aggressive Florida campaign for months, and this poll is the first to show him in position to pose a serious threat to the better known Giuliani and McCain.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.