- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. | Gov. Charlie Crist has fallen far behind in Florida’s Republican primary contest for the U.S. Senate, but he could capture a three-way race in November if he ran as an independent, according to a new poll released Thursday.

Mr. Crist must decide by April 30 whether to remain in the GOP primary, where former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a rising star among party conservatives, is favored. The governor has refused to shut the door definitively on speculation he might bolt the party to seek the seat as an independent in November.

If the general election were held now, 32 percent of voters would favor Mr. Crist, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Rubio and 24 percent for the Democratic front-runner, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, according to a survey of 1,250 registered voters taken April 8 through 13 by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

“The biggest threat to Crist’s political career is the Republican primary,” said Peter Brown, Quinnipiac’s assistant polling director. “People overall think he is doing a good job as governor, but that doesn’t mean Republicans think that he should be their U.S. senator.”

Mr. Crist on Thursday vetoed a wide-ranging education bill favored by conservatives but unpopular with the public that would have made it easier to fire Florida teachers and link their pay to student test scores. Some political observers in the state see the move as another signal that he will drop out of the primary and run as an independent.

In a poll of 497 registered Republicans, Mr. Rubio defeats Mr. Crist 56 percent to 33 percent in a head-to-head GOP match-up. In Quinnipiac’s January poll, Mr. Rubio had a 47 percent to 44 percent lead.

Quinnipiac said its larger survey of voters in a three-way general-election race had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. The smaller sampling of only Republican voters had an error rate of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Mr. Crist’s biggest problem among Republicans is that they don’t view him as conservative enough; the poll found that 59 percent see Mr. Rubio as more consistently conservative, compared with 27 percent for Mr. Crist.

But what could hurt Mr. Crist in the primary could help in the general election. The poll found Mr. Crist would defeat Mr. Meek 48 percent to 34 percent, while Mr. Rubio would win with 42 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Mr. Meek, if that race were held now.

The overall numbers represent a dramatic reversal for the 53-year-old governor, who crushed former Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher in the 2006 GOP primary and then eased to a general-election win by 7 percentage points over Democratic nominee Jim Davis. He entered the Senate primary last year as the prohibitive favorite over the then-unknown Mr. Rubio.

The two Republicans and Mr. Meek are vying to succeed Republican Mel Martinez, who left before his term ended. Mr. Crist appointed Republican state Sen. George LeMieux to finish out Mr. Martinez’s term.

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