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    Poll: Nelson leads Senate race

    But the Times poll shows 17 percent of likely voters undecided, enough to swing the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Bill McCollum.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000


    Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson is handily leading Republican U.S. Rep Bill McCollum in Florida's U.S. Senate race, a new St. Petersburg Times poll shows.


    Click on links below for Adobe Acrobat versions of the Times chart:
  • A sampling of the voters' views
  • The Senate race
  • State cabinet races
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    The results are grim for McCollum across the board, with voters in almost every demographic group and geographical area favoring Nelson over McCollum. Not only has the conservative congressman from the Orlando area made little headway attracting moderate and swing voters, but the poll shows he is neck and neck with Nelson among born-again Christian conservatives.

    Overall, the Times poll shows 45 percent of likely voters backing Nelson and 34 percent supporting McCollum. Independent candidate Willie Logan and Reform Party nominee Joel Deckard appear to be non-factors in the race, winning 3 percent and 1 percent respectively. Conducted for the Times by Washington, D.C.-based Schroth & Associates between Oct. 4 and Oct. 6, the telephone poll hasa margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

    "Like Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Bill Nelson has carved out a very favorable image among Florida Democrats, one that the Republicans will find it very, very difficult to reverse," said pollster Rob Schroth. "Bill Nelson is an established quantity for Florida voters, and Bill McCollum has not provided a rationale for moving in a different direction."

    Undecided voters could still turn the numbers around. Except for the presidential race, the poll shows many Floridians have yet to focus closely on the statewide races. With a month before Election Day, 17 percent of Floridians are undecided in the Senate race.

    In the education commissioner contest, Republican former state Sen. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg has 37 percent support, while Democratic former state Rep. George Sheldon of Tampa has 32 percent. Nearly one-third of all voters are undecided in that race, according to the poll.

    The race for state insurance commissioner is also tight, with Republican Tom Gallagher receiving 41 percent support and Democrat John Cosgrove earning 36 percent. The poll found 23 percent undecided.

    The campaign to succeed Republican Connie Mack in the Senate is being closely watched nationwide. Not only does it offer Democrats one of their best shots at picking up a Senate seat, but it's a barometer of the party's re-emergence in the South.

    The race pits Nelson, a moderate former congressman embarking on his fourth statewide race, against McCollum, a 20-year congressman making his first run outside Central Florida. McCollum is best known for his leading role in impeaching President Clinton, but he has sought to soften his image and introduce himself as a moderate man of principle.

    McCollum had hoped to benefit from George W. Bush's coattails, but the polls shows no sign of that happening.

    The poll shows him making few inroads outside his GOP base. Some 67 percent of registered Republicans back McCollum, but Nelson leads 41 percent to 15 percent among independent voters and 73 percent to 11 percent among Democrats. McCollum is particularly struggling among women, who, regardless of party affiliation, support Nelson 47 percent to 30 percent.

    Neither McCollum nor Nelson brings up impeachment with any regularity, but interviews with voters in the poll indicated that it's a key factor for Floridians weighing Nelson and McCollum.

    "I do not like Mr. McCollum," said Evelyn Dean, a 52-year-old Tampa homemaker who switched from Republican to Democrat out of disgust with the impeachment. "I don't think he represented Florida at all. It was pioused, it was arrogant."

    On the other hand, Clifford Scholefield, a 70-year-old Republican from Gainesville, first came to know McCollum during the impeachment and liked the way he conducted himself.

    "I think he's a pretty straight shooter," Scholefield said. "And anybody (like Nelson) who's associated with that fiasco we've got with insurance in Florida, that bothers me."

    The poll found McCollum leading Nelson only in heavily Republican Southwest Florida. Nelson is overwhelmingly leading McCollum in McCollum's home territory of Central Florida, and slightly beating McCollum in the Republican-friendly Panhandle. In the Tampa Bay area, Nelson leads McCollum 52 percent to 31 percent, while Willie Logan has 3 percent support.

    Bill Coletti, executive director of the McCollum campaign, doubted the poll's accuracy.

    "The worst-case scenario we have seen is that this race is within 3 points," Coletti said.

    The last two major independent polls, conducted in early September by Florida Voter and Mason-Dixon, found Nelson leading McCollum by 8 percent. Since then, each side has poured about $2-million into TV ads.

    Pollster Schroth downplayed the significance of the large number of undecided voters, saying most of them are likely to follow the lead of decided voters.

    "McCollum has to do three things," Schroth said. "No. 1, he has to get better known. No. 2, get (seen in a) better light, and No. 3, he has to have a stronger message."

    How poll was done

    The St. Petersburg Times opinion poll was conducted by Schroth & Associates, a Washington polling firm that has extensive experience in Florida and is not affiliated with the presidential or Florida U.S. Senate campaigns. The pollster conducted 600 telephone interviews with likely Florida voters between Oct. 4 and Oct. 6. Statewide answers have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. An additional 200 interviews were conducted in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The margin of error is higher among some subgroups.

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