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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Get ready Florida for another nail biter presidential election.
A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows America's biggest battleground state is up for grabs by either Republicans or Democrats, and that neither of the front-runners for their party nominations, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, has Florida locked up yet.
"Florida is poised to be both a bellwether and maybe even a shocker and a bit of a surprise for presidential politics in 2008," said pollster Kellyanne Conway.
Former New York Mayor Giuliani beat Clinton by 5 percentage points among the 800 registered voters surveyed Nov. 4-7, and Arizona Sen. John McCain was neck-and-neck with Clinton in head-to-head matchups. But independent voters, strongly disenchanted with the Iraq war, President Bush and the direction of the country, make Florida's 27 electoral votes ripe for Democrats to pluck.
Florida Democrats overwhelmingly favor Clinton, who had 48 percent support compared to 24 percent for Barack Obama. Eight percent favored former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Clinton's strongest area was Tampa Bay, where she had 60 percent support among Democrats but still lagged Giuliani and McCain in Tampa Bay.
Among Republican voters, former Tennessee Sen. and Law & Order star Fred Thompson is proving to be nowhere near the force many had expected when he entered the race in September.
The poll showed him in fifth place with 8 percent support, behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with 9 percent, McCain with 12 percent, Mitt Romney with 19 percent and Giuliani with 36 percent in the state he declares a must-win.
"I thought Fred Thompson was going to be the guy, but he seems so laid back. He's been a disappointment," said Angela Kulick, a 61-year-old Republican in Spring Hill who is leaning toward Giuliani. "I kind of like Mitt Romney's values better than Giuliani, but Giuliani seems tougher and I think we need someone in office who's dynamic and shows strength."
Florida's Jan. 29 primaries stand to be shaped dramatically by what happens in the earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Romney and Giuliani
Romney, already in a dead heat with Giuliani in the Tampa Bay area and the eastern end of the Interstate 4 corridor, at this point is positioned to sweep all those early states and ride a giant wave of momentum into Florida.
"If Romney is able to sweep through the opening first states, Giuliani is going to have to throw everything he has at Romney, and Romney is going to have the opportunity to deliver," said pollster Tom Eldon. "I don't want to call it the coup de grace in Florida, but something very, very close."
Nearly six in 10 Republicans called immigration the most pressing issue.
"The Republican primary is going to come down to a battle of credibility over immigration and saber rattling on Iran," Eldon predicted. "This will essentially freeze McCain out of the debate while Romney and Giuliani slug it out in an all-out TV war."
The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Nov. 4-7 for a coalition of media outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post.
The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Co., which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points overall, 5.3 percentage points for the Democratic primary and 5.5 percentage points for the Republican primary.
The survey finds Floridians decidedly pessimistic about the state of their country as they head into the most wide-open presidential race in decades.
Nearly seven in 10 voters said the country is on the wrong track -- including three out of four independent voters and nearly half of Republicans -- while only 33 percent felt Bush is doing a good or excellent job.
But the Republican presidential candidates distance themselves from the sitting commander in chief at their own peril. At least six in 10 supporters of Thompson, Romney and Giuliani give the president strong marks, while fewer than half of McCain's supporters do.
Florida voters are also overwhelmingly negative about the Iraq war, with two-thirds of all voters giving the president fair or poor marks for his handling of Iraq and 58 percent saying the United States should withdraw troops "as quickly as possible."
Even in North Florida, with its heavy concentration of veterans and military bases, 59 percent supported quick withdrawal. In the big swing voter battleground of the Tampa Bay area, 51 percent backed quick withdrawal and 44 percent supported staying "as long as necessary."
Florida is more divided on Iran. Asked if they would support Bush taking military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, 43 percent were supportive and 49 percent were opposed.
"I would support that only if the United States went the right way -- going through the United Nations -- the way they should have with Iraq," said Michael Walker, 54, a Democrat and retired postal worker in Palmetto.
State leaders this year moved Florida's primary from March to Jan. 29 to increase Florida's influence in the presidential nominating process. That early primary violates both parties' rules and has prompted national Democrats to declare Florida's vote officially meaningless in picking the nominee. As a result, all of the leading Democrats signed a pledge promising not to campaign in Florida.
The poll found that Florida Democrats are unbowed. Only seven percent said they were less likely to vote in the primary as a result of the penalties from national Democrats.
The real question is whether Clinton is stoppable in Florida, where she leads comfortably in every region and by more than 40 percentage points among the most reliable voters -- those 60 and older.
Among 18- to 34-year-olds, Obama, her closest but still distant rival, beat the New York senator 43 percent to 36 percent, and edged her among African-Americans, 44 percent to 42 percent.
But for all the talk of Clinton's divisive and polarizing nature, the poll offers little evidence that she's a significantly weaker general election candidate in Florida than any other Democrat, especially given the anti-Republican climate.
"I'm thoroughly disgusted with all of them," 36-year-old Russ Walker, a Clearwater painter and registered independent, said of the GOP field. "I swore I would never say this, but I'd vote for Hillary. She has more of a focus on health care."
Among voters paying the closest attention, Clinton fared better against Giuliani and McCain than either Obama or Edwards, and like the other Democrats, she beat either Romney or Thompson in Florida.
Against Giuliani, Clinton performed at least as well in conservative north Florida, with 43 percent support, than either Obama or Edwards, and about as well or better than either of them among independent voters, with 42 percent. Among women, Clinton beat Giuliani by 10 percentage points, whereas Obama trailed among women and Edwards narrowly edged Giuliani among women.
Curiously, Edwards' supporters were the most likely to say they would support the Republican nominee in the general election over Clinton or Obama, with 36 percent saying they would back Romney over Clinton or Obama, for instance, and at least 29 percent backing Giuliani over Clinton or Obama.
The Republican National Committee is also stripping convention delegates from Florida Republicans, but the leading candidates are still campaigning relentlessly in the Sunshine State. Romney has been airing TV ads in markets like Tampa Bay, which appears to be paying off.
Republican Brandee Fondren, a 32-year-old meeting planner from Seffner, had been a strong Giuliani supporter but switched to Romney as she learned more about the candidates.
"I'm not sure if it's because I'm learning more about Giuliani's past that I don't like, or if it's that I'm learning more about Romney's stance that I do like. I prefer Romney's stance on the social issues," she said, citing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Among Republicans who said they were very frequent church-goers, 20 percent backed Romney, 17 percent Giuliani, 15 percent each for Huckabee and Thompson and 12 percent for McCain. Among those who said they rarely or never attend church, 45 percent backed Giuliani and 17 percent Romney.
Romney has started advertising on Hispanic radio, but the poll shows him with only 6 percent support among Hispanic Republicans, compared to 70 percent for Giuliani and 12 percent for McCain.
"He's got sort of the Jeb Bush magic when it comes to the self-identified Hispanic Republicans," Conway, the Republican pollster, said of Giuliani, who is largely a South Florida candidate.
Giuliani leads the GOP field by 36 points in South Florida and is tied with Romney across the Tampa Bay area and Central Florida, while North Florida looks like a four-man race: Giuliani 36 percent, McCain 16 percent, Romney 15 percent and Huckabee 13 percent.
Eight in 10 voters said they are following the presidential election somewhat or very closely, and among those most tuned in, it's advantage Democrats. Every Democrat beats every Republican among those voters following the election closest.
Staff writers Alex Leary and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.