Bogged down by Florida's high unemployment and a string of political missteps that alienated the Republican core, Gov. Charlie Crist finds himself in a tight primary against a former state lawmaker in the race for U.S. Senate, new polls show.
Marco Rubio, a lawyer who served as Speaker of the House, was initially considered a long shot against Crist, who has widespread name recognition and a significant fundraising lead.
But with Florida's primary less than seven months away, Rubio has rocketed into contention, favored by 47 percent compared with 44 percent who preferred Crist among registered Republican voters – a gap that put the candidates roughly even in the poll released Tuesday.
The random telephone survey by Quinnipiac (Conn.) University included 673 registered GOP voters. It was conducted Jan. 20-24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
"The horse race numbers are not a fluke," said Peter Brown, assistant polling director for Quinnipiac in Connecticut. "Rubio's grass roots campaigning among Republican activists around the state clearly has paid off."
The latest survey marks a stunning turnaround for the 38-year-old Rubio, a conservative who trailed Crist by 31 points in a Quinnipiac survey taken last June and by 15 points in another in October.
"Marco Rubio has caught the wave," pollster Brown said Tuesday.
"It's not a good thing to be an incumbent in a lot of places this year and Gov. Crist is a virtual incumbent in this race," Brown said.
Crist, who is bypassing a re-election bid as governor for the Senate race, shrugged off the latest poll numbers before heading into a Cabinet meeting.
"It's really not my concern," Crist said. "You know these are tough times for any leader. It's challenging to lead in difficult times, but we're going to keep doing it and keep fighting."
Florida's 11.8 percent unemployment, in large part a result of the worst housing crisis in the nation, is the highest in the state in nearly 35 years.
Once known as "Chain Gang Charlie" for his tough approach to criminals during his days in the state Senate, Crist has angered some Republicans – especially those who identify themselves as conservatives. The governor's choice of Jim Greer as party chairman and his effusive support of President Obama's stimulus program have divided GOP ranks.
Both candidates also released their fundraising totals Tuesday from the last quarter.
Crist's campaign said the governor raised $2 million and has $7.5 million on hand compared to roughly the $2 million Rubio has in the bank.
But Rubio's campaign is gaining. He raised $1.75 million in the quarter ending Dec. 31 compared to being outraised by nearly than a 13-to-1 ratio in the first quarter of their race last summer.
"In order to defeat Rubio, Gov. Crist is going to have to turn around a perception that he is not as much the true-blue, or true-red, conservative as Rubio," Brown said. "That probably means lots of TV commercials attacking Rubio's conservative credentials."
The poll showed either Crist or Rubio would defeat little-known Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami in the general election if held now.
The poll also found Crist leading Meek by 48 percent to 36 percent and Rubio leading Meek by 44 percent to 35 percent. That survey included 1,618 registered voters had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
The U.S. Senate seat is now held by Republican George LeMieux, who was appointed by Crist last summer to fill the rest of former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's term. Martinez retired, saying he was frustrated with being powerless to create change as a member of the Republican minority in Washington.
LeMieux, who managed Crist's successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006, agreed not to run for the seat when he accepted the appointment.