TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Strong support from women and independents is helping Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist maintain a hefty lead over incumbent Republican Rick Scott, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.
Crist, who was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican but later left the party and the governor's mansion, leads Scott by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent, the poll showed. That is similar to a Quinnipiac poll in January that gave Crist a lead of 46 percent to 38 percent.
"Florida voters think former Gov. Crist is more compassionate, more honest and trustworthy and was a better governor than Gov. Scott,'' Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a prepared statement accompanying the results. "The difference may be simple: Voters like Crist, whose strength always has been his ability to connect. Voters sometimes elect candidates they don't like personally, but not that often."
Crist particularly does well with women voters, leading Scott by a margin of 51 percent to 33 percent, according to the poll. Independents also back Crist by a margin of 48 percent to 34 percent.
Crist beat Scott on a variety of issues, including compassion, honesty and trustworthiness, and voters also viewed Crist as a better leader. And Crist received a better grade as governor, with an approval rate of 52-38 percent, compared to Scott's negative 42-50 percent job-approval rating.
The latest figures come after Scott's campaign has unleashed six television ads, most of them bashing Crist.
Brown said that the latest numbers show that Scott's "television barrage" hasn't helped the incumbent.
"Scott has used millions of dollars of television ads to try to convince voters that Charlie Crist isn't their kind of guy and, so far, it hasn't worked. That tells you something," Brown said Wednesday.
Former state Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich is the only other prominent Democrat who has jumped into the gubernatorial race. Scott leads her by a margin of 42 percent to 36 percent, the poll shows.
The poll of 1,413 registered voters was conducted from April 23 to April 28 and has a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points.
While Quinnipiac polls have consistently shown Crist with a sizable lead over Scott, Wednesday's results differ substantially from a poll released last week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc. That poll showed Crist and Scott in a dead heat.
Republicans quickly criticized the Quinnipiac survey as being too Democrat-heavy. Quinnipiac pollsters weight their samples for age, race and gender but not for party registration. Instead, survey respondents self-report their party. The latest sample found 31 percent identified as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, 34 percent as independent and 11 percent with other parties or didn't know.
In the 2010 governor's race, Republican voter turnout edged out Democrats by 4 percentage points, Scott's campaign spokesman Greg Blair pointed out in an e-mail. He said 44 percent of voters in that election were Republicans.
"So, aside from the strange D/R split, the R sample in this survey is almost 20 POINTS BELOW what the electorate looked like in the last midterm and 14 below the last presidential election. That should raise some eyebrows," Blair wrote.
Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who serves as Scott's campaign chairman, dismissed the poll results Wednesday afternoon.
"I don't believe it. I think it's wrong," Thrasher said.
But Brown said that many voters register as one party but consider themselves as belonging to another, or, for a growing number, to none at all. Brown called the self-reported party information "more timely" than voter registration data.
More than half of those questioned --- 53 percent to 39 percent --- said that Scott doesn't deserve another term in office, similar to earlier poll findings.
Scott's inability to move that number is problematic, said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who is advising Crist.
"The challenge the Scott people have is they can beat Crist down but their guy still isn't a viable alternative," Schale said. "Until that re-election number moves up, Rick Scott is still in peril."
The Quinnipiac poll also found Floridians support same-sex marriage and allowing undocumented students who graduate from high schools to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
But voters are split along party lines on both of the issues. Overall, Florida voters supported allowing same-sex couples to marry by a 56 percent to 39 percent margin, with nearly two-thirds of Democrats and independents backing gay marriage but 64 percent of Republicans opposed. Only voters over 65 years old --- split 45 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed --- did not favor gay marriage.
By a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent, voters favored allowing undocumented immigrants who attend Florida high schools to pay in-state tuition rates, a controversial proposal now before the state Legislature. Scott has recently embraced the issue, possibly as a way for him to gain traction with Hispanics, considered a crucial voting bloc in Florida. Scott alienated some Hispanic voters in his first campaign when he pledged to bring an "Arizona-style" immigration law to Florida, and later further angered Hispanics when he vetoed a bill that could have allowed some children of illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
Three-quarters of Democrats and 57 percent of independents support the in-state tuition idea, but Republicans oppose the cheaper tuition 66 percent to 29 percent.
"Florida is the biggest swing state in the country. It pretty much reflects national attitudes," Brown said.
This report is by Dara Kam and Jim Saunders with The News Service of Florida.
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