Times poll: McCain, Romney are neck and neck

In a St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and Miami Herald poll, the Republican primary is boiling down to those two. For Democrats, Clinton is leading the pack.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 24, 2008

It's Mitt Romney vs. John McCain in the final stretch of Florida's crucial Republican primary.

A new St. Petersburg Times poll shows the former Massachusetts governor and Arizona senator neck and neck among Florida Republicans, while Rudy Giuliani's Florida-or-bust strategy has been a bust.

Among Florida voters likely to vote in Tuesday's primary, 25 percent were backing McCain and 23 percent Romney, a statistical tie, while Giuliani and Mike Huckabee were tied for third place with 15 percent each.

In Florida's odd, candidate-free, campaign-free Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton was trouncing Barack Obama by 19 percentage points in a race with stark racial divisions. The poll found 42 percent backing Clinton, 23 percent supporting Obama and 12 percent behind former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

But it's the volatile GOP race the nation is mainly watching. After six earlier contests, three different candidates have claimed major victories, which has left the field top-heavy with legitimate contenders.

Florida Republicans will have a huge influence on the race by providing one candidate with crucial momentum as he heads into Super Tuesday one week later, when 22 states hold primaries or caucuses.

Former New York Mayor Giuliani staked his candidacy on Florida, skipping the early contests on the theory that a Sunshine State victory would demonstrate national electability right before Super Tuesday. But even with 27 percent of Florida Republicans saying they might change their minds, the bold strategy is looking like a bad gamble.

"Giuliani's decision to pull out of the early states is going to go down in history, if he finishes out of the money in Florida, as one of the worst political decisions," said pollster Tom Eldon.

"If he can't make it there in Florida, he can't make it anywhere," fellow pollster Kellyanne Conway said, noting that polls lately even have him trailing in his home state of New York. "Giuliani better hope there are enough transplanted New Yorkers in Florida to push him over the top there, because right now there aren't enough New Yorkers in New York who are favoring Giuliani."

The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Jan. 20-22 for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald. 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, 5.4 percentage points for the Democratic primary and 5.1 percentage points for the Republican primary.

The poll included actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who dropped out of the race Tuesday afternoon. But Thompson's departure appears unlikely to change much in Florida as only 4 percent of those surveyed backed him, just ahead of Ron Paul with 3 percent.

Romney has an edge

Romney stands to have the advantage in a McCain-Romney Florida contest, because the multimillionaire former venture capitalist is the only candidate with the money to buy loads of TV ads. He already is significantly outspending his rivals on TV everywhere but in the Tampa Bay area, and in a sign of confidence today will begin airing ads in Miami-Dade, the most expensive media market.

Unlike Romney and Giuliani, McCain has little campaign organization in Florida to mobilize support. About 270,000 Republicans and 250,000 Democrats already have voted, either through absentee ballots or early voting, and Giuliani has been especially aggressive trying to bank those early votes.

"On Election Day, we fully expect that Mayor Giuliani's time in the state, his extensive grass roots organization and his message of cutting taxes and supporting a national catastrophe fund will put him over the top," said Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella.

The Times' pollsters in November found Giuliani leading the field by 17 percentage points, but since then his support in South Florida has dropped dramatically.

Where he dominated the region with 50 percent support in November and 70 percent support among Hispanic voters, the latest poll shows him trailing McCain by 10 percentage points in South Florida. Giuliani's support among Hispanic voters was cut almost in half, with Giuliani and McCain effectively tied 36 percent to 33 percent.

"Now Giuliani, he did a great job in New York City when 9/11 happened. He handled that pretty good up there," said Robert Weatherly, a 56-year-old retiree in Big Pine Key. "But that's just one instance. McCain has been around a lot longer."

Tampa Bay is the most competitive region of the state for the Republicans, with Romney at 22 percent support, McCain and Huckabee tied at 19 percent and Giuliani with 10 percent. In North Florida, Southerner Huckabee was the strongest, with 28 percent support, while Romney led in southwest Florida, and McCain led in South Florida and Central Florida.

Process of elimination

Tom Finley, 47, a self-employed property manager from Tampa, is uninspired by the Republican choices.

"For me, it's mostly a process of elimination," said Finley, who said he was heartened to see a recent video clip that showed Romney angrily confronting a reporter last week when questioned about lobbyists on his campaign staff. "Mitt Romney seems the least slick, believe it or not."

Improving the economy is far and away the top priority for Republicans, Democrats and independents alike in Florida. Among Republicans who viewed the economy as the most important issue, McCain fared best. Romney was strongest among the one in five Republicans most concerned about illegal immigration.

All the leading Republicans have been competing in Florida, the first primary where independents can't vote and potentially dilute the votes of more conservative Republicans.

And, for Democrats ...

In the Democratic race, 48 percent of African-Americans supported Obama and 27 percent Clinton, and he also led among voters under 35. But the former first lady overwhelmingly led Obama and Edwards in every region, and among Anglo voters and Hispanic voters. In the Tampa Bay area, 54 percent support Clinton to Obama's 25 percent.

Florida's Democratic primary is an especially unusual contest. As punishment for scheduling an early primary in violation of the Democratic National Committee rules, Florida lost all its delegates to the national convention. All the Democrats also signed oaths boycotting Florida's primary so they aren't campaigning here.

Coral Springs yoga center worker Gail Riley, a 60-year-old Clinton supporter, said it "annoys her to no end" that Florida has no delegates.

When she got a phone call recently asking for a contribution to the national Democratic Party, she told the caller, "When I get my vote back!"

Times staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Watch the GOP debate: Live, 9-10:30 tonight in Boca Raton. Airs on MSNBC.