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Undecideds temper early Nelson lead

Next year, voters will be asked to choose a new senator and possibly make a decision about the future of affirmative action in this state. A Times poll shows likely voters favoring a Democrat for the Senate seat and an end to the controversial programs.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1999


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Program supporters outnumbered 2 to 1

Undecideds temper early lead by Nelson

How_the poll was done

The race to succeed Connie Mack in the U.S. Senate so far looks like a rare bright spot for Florida Democrats, as a new poll shows Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson leading both his Republican rivals.

But the St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll of 600 likely voters shows the dynamics could easily change over the next year, as 28 percent of voters remain undecided and none of the candidates has overwhelming support.

If the election were held today, about 36 percent of voters would support Nelson, while either of his Republican opponents would receive 29 percent of the vote.

The telephone poll was conducted by the Washington polling firm Schroth & Associates.

In the Republican primary, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher leads U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum 39 percent to 33 percent, with 28 percent of voters undecided. McCollum, whose congressional district is based in the Orlando area, is particularly strong in central and southwest Florida, while Gallagher, a onetime South Florida state lawmaker, enjoys strong popularity in South Florida and the Panhandle.

"That thing could be a dog fight," pollster Rob Schroth said of the September 2000 Senate primary. "Both have regional bases. The question will be who can score highest outside their regional bases."

Among Pinellas and Hillsborough county voters, Nelson and McCollum are in a statistical tie, while Nelson beats Gallagher in Pinellas and Hillsborough 39 percent to 29 percent.

The Senate race wild card is state Rep. Willie Logan, D-Opa-locka, who is running as an independent.

The poll suggests Logan's impact on the race so far is relatively minor, with roughly 7 percent backing him regardless of the Republican nominee. But as an African-American, Logan logically would pull support from Democrat Nelson and could make a big impact on a close race. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, at least 10 percent of polled voters backed Logan.

The large number of undecided voters was borne out in random followup interviews by the Times. Most people said they were paying little attention to the race and were waiting to learn more about the candidates.

The Senate primary pits Gallagher, the moderate former insurance commissioner accustomed to statewide campaigns, against the more conservativeMcCollum, who was a high-profile player among Republicans pushing President Clinton's impeachment.

The poll by Schroth & Associates found that likely voters overwhelmingly said the impeachment proceedings will play no role in their election choices. But several Democratic respondents who said they frequently cross party lines told the Times that McCollum's aggressive anti-Clinton rhetoric turned them off.

"The main thing I know about that (Senate) race is that I'm not for Bill McCollum," said Peggy Dorris-Ralph, a retired loan supervisor from Orange County. "I don't like the president's morals. What he did was horrible. But I don't like the way Bill McCollum attacked him and attacked him and attacked him. I didn't like the way he acted then, his face all over TV."

At the same time, McCollum's impeachment efforts endeared him to some Republican activists.

"I think he and the others (House managers) were holding to principle, while too many others were buckling," said Republican Marjorie Wilder, a McCollum supporter from St. Augustine.

Conventional wisdom would make the centrist Gallagher a more formidable general election opponent for Nelson, but the poll shows virtually no shift in numbers whether Nelson is running against Gallagher or McCollum.

"This race seems largely unformed to me right now," said Schroth, the pollster. "The best thing you could say about this now is Nelson holds an early advantage and that the undecideds will hold the key to victory."


-- Times political editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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