Florida's gubernatorial race continues to surprise, as a new poll shows state Attorney General Bill McCollum - whose campaign had slumped for months - with a slim lead for the Republican nomination over former front-runner and millionaire Rick Scott.
The survey shows that 34 percent of likely Florida voters prefer Mr. McCollum, while 30 percent say they'll vote for Mr. Scott in the Aug. 24 primary.
The Mason-Dixon Polling & Research polls also show a significantly large portion of the GOP electorate - 33 percent - remains undecided, indicating that the race is still wide open. Yet, Mr. McCollum's turnaround is no fluke, the result of relentless attack ads that have resonated with voters, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who closely monitors Sunshine State politics.
"Republican Party regulars are starting to worry about Scott as their nominee and the fact that it might hurt other candidates on the ballot with an 'R' after their name," she said.
Mr. Scott had enjoyed a double-digit lead over Mr. McCollum in many polls taken this summer. A Mason-Dixon poll released a week earlier showed Mr. Scott with a 6 percentage-point lead over his primary rival.
Mr. McCollum has hammered Mr. Scott over his business dealings over Solantic, a chain of health care clinics Mr. Scott co-founded that the state is investigating for possible overbilling of Medicare.
Mr. McCollum has criticized his GOP opponent for refusing to make public a video deposition in a Solantic-related lawsuit. Mr. Scott has fired back, accusing the attorney general of abusing his position by attempting to use state investigators to harass the company and its employees.
"It's a private matter, and I will not release the deposition," said Mr. Scott at a Tuesday press conference.
Mr. McCollum also hasn't been shy to bring up Mr. Scott's 1997 ouster as head of the Columbia/HCA hospital group by its board of directors in the midst of one of the most massive Medicaid and Medicare fraud scandals in U.S. history.
Four years later, the company reached a plea agreement with the U.S. government that eventually led to it paying more than $1.7 billion in fines, back payments and lawsuit settlements.
Ms. MacManus says Mr. Scott hasn't helped his cause by skipping out on public debates with Mr. McCollum. Mr. Scott, in defending the attacks from Mr. McCollum, also has become increasingly defiant during public appearances, a tactic she says risks alienating voters.
Mr. Scott's self-financing of his campaign also is seen as a negative by some voters, she says.
"It's sort of the convergence of a lot of money and a lot of media coverage of how you got your money, and anxiety on the part of Republicans about his background - the three of them I think made the race close a bit," Ms. MacManus said.
Mr. McCollum's campaign also has received a boost from popular former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has stumped for the attorney general, and the recent endorsement of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, the big winner in the McCollum-Scott fight could be Florida's Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Ms. Sink would win by 2 percentage points in a three-way race with Mr. McCollum and independent candidate Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, whose father was a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, the Mason-Dixon poll says. In a race with Mr. Scott and Mr. Chiles, Ms. Sink would cruise to 16-percentage-point victory.
"I think it's going to be a really close race," Ms. MacManus said.
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