TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's independent bid for the U.S. Senate is ahead among Democrats and independents but the former Republican is getting crushed among GOP voters and that has left him well behind overall, a poll released Thursday shows.
Republican Marco Rubio commands a double-digit lead among all likely voters, harnessing a split among Democrats over their nominee Kendrick Meek and Crist, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of 1,151 likely voters conducted between Sept. 23 and 28. It claims a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Rubio, the former speaker of the state House and a tea party favorite, was favored by 46 percent to Crist's 33 percent, with Meek far back with 18 percent.
Rubio, a West Miami lawyer, has an 83 percent to 13 percent lead over Crist among likely Republican voters, the poll shows, while nearly splitting the independent vote with Crist. Meanwhile, the survey shows Crist and Meek splitting among the Democrats.
That's a big drop for Crist, who had a slight lead in most polls in a three-way race shortly after he announced he was leaving the Republican Party to run as an independent in April. That decision came after polls showed he would lose badly to Rubio in the Republican primary. He maintained that lead through Florida's Aug. 24 primary.
But leaving the Republicans has made it tougher for Crist to raise money and he had to replace nearly all his campaign staff. Crist also doesn't have the advantage of a party infrastructure for resources like voter lists and volunteers. And the GOP is now doing everything in its power to defeat him — and so are the Democrats.
But Crist's campaign claimed to be undaunted by Thursday's latest poll numbers.
"This poll and others show that Congressman Meek has flatlined in the high teens and low 20s following his primary," Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner said. "Floridians have a real choice between Charlie Crist, an honest, independent leader or tea party darling Marco Rubio who is under the same clouds of federal investigation and insider deals that has polluted Washington for too long."
Crist has been trying to increase his Democratic support by painting Meek as unelectable and himself as the only alternative to Rubio. He has gotten the support of some prominent Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler and state Senate minority leader Al Lawson, and he has moved to the left on some issues to try to draw in rank-and-file Democrats. He now says he won't enforce the state's ban on gay adoption and vetoed a bill that was a top priority for anti-abortion Republicans. He also vetoed a GOP-backed bill that would have stripped tenure from new teachers.
That's gotten him a 46 percent to 43 percent lead over Meek among Democrats in the Quinnipiac poll, but he needs to draw 60-some percent of the Democrats if he is to have any chance. Meek and the Democrats have defended their turf by running television commercials that incorporates video footage from Crist's past in which he proclaims himself a strong conservative Republican.
"Our feeling is that Kendrick is moving up and Gov. Crist falling," said Adam Sharon, communications director for the Meek campaign. "More than a few polls taken over the last few weeks show Democrats coming to Kendrick."
"The real threat to Rubio is that somehow the Meek and Crist voters get together and decide to support one of the two," Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown said.
Crist, who would have had a strong chance to remain governor if he had run for re-election, jumped into the Senate race last year after incumbent Mel Martinez resigned. Crist expected he would beat the then little-known Rubio in the GOP primary, but the governor supported President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan and that backfired as many Republicans strongly opposed it and began switching to Rubio.
The poll shows Rubio as the major beneficiary of voter anger.
Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they are angry at the federal government and another 29 percent described themselves as dissatisfied. Only 22 percent were satisfied with or enthusiastic about Washington's performance.
Rubio is backed by two-thirds of the angry or dissatisfied voters. His support appears solid, as only 10 percent of those who favored him said they might change their minds, the poll showed.
Rubio has generally stayed above the fray in recent weeks. He has run commercials that focus on his family or criticize politicians without naming his opponents.
"Whether he's been down 30 points, tied or up by double digits, Marco has consistently run on the principles and ideas he believes are necessary to control spending and provide entrepreneurs with the certainty they need to start new businesses or expand existing ones," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said.
Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Miami contributed to this report.