Florida Gov. Rick Scott, widely considered one of the most vulnerable Republican governors facing voters this fall, is on the political rebound against one of the Democratic Party's prize converts, former Republican governor and newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist.
According to a just-completed St. Leo University poll, Crist leads Scott by a margin of 43 percent to 39 percent among likely voters. The latest figures point to a jump for the embattled Scott, who has consistently trailed Crist by larger margins in most polls.
In the last survey conducted by St. Leo in December, for example, Crist led Scott by 46 percent to 34 percent.
Because of Florida's 29 electoral votes and its importance in presidential politics, the race is sure to be one of the most-watched gubernatorial bouts anywhere this year.
To the outside observer, it is hard to imagine how Florida — which last elected a Democratic governor in 1994 — could have a Republican chief executive with a record of accomplishment trailing an opponent who switched from the GOP to independent in 2010, then became a Democrat less than two years ago.
"You have to realize that Gov. Scott is a business executive who knows how to manage things and does that very well," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Ed Pozzuoli, past chairman of the Broward County GOP and fundraiser for Florida's former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
"He's kept taxes down, brought down barriers to business, and wooed new businesses and greater opportunity to Florida. But because he's not a politician — in other words, he's not Charlie Crist — Gov. Scott is in the tight race he's in," Pozzuoli said.
St. Leo's findings on the governor's approval ratings appear to bear out Pozzuoli's assessment: 48 percent of Sunshine State voters approve of Scott's performance and 47 percent disapprove, according to the survey by the Catholic university, which is based about 35 miles north of Tampa.
Crist, a former Florida attorney general, seemed headed for an easy re-election as governor in 2010 before he suddenly opted to run for an open U.S. Senate seat. When polls showed conservative Marco Rubio leading him among GOP voters, Crist bolted and ran as an independent. In November 2010, he came in second in a three-candidate race won by Rubio.
At a White House Christmas party in 2012, Crist — who had endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election — announced he had become a Democrat. Within a few months, he declared for his old job as governor and all possible primary opponents deferred to him, except former Broward County state Sen. Nan Rich.
"And all this happened as Charlie was repudiating most of his past positions," Pozzuoli observed, recalling how Crist had been a "law-and-order" conservative in his 2006 race for governor and proclaimed himself pro-life.
Crist also irked the right with his European-style position on the danger of climate change and support for the Obama economic stimulus package, which included a public bear hug of the president in 2009.
A former CEO of Columbia/HCA and a multi-millionaire, first-time candidate Scott spent heavily from his own fortune in 2010 and won an upset over the favorite for the GOP nod for governor, state Attorney General Bill McCollum.
In November 2010, Scott defeated state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent in one of the closest races for governor anywhere that year.
"His poll numbers are so low because Florida took a long time to recover from a massive foreclosure problem," veteran elections analyst Jay O'Callaghan, a Floridian, told Newsmax. "The state's dominant liberal media — Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel — blows out of proportion any misstep by him or his staff."
O'Callaghan predicted another tight race for Scott. He also pointed out that the fall race will be complicated by two Libertarians who have filed for governor along with a number of independents and a Socialist candidate.
He said: "Florida is now one of the easiest states for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, but none of the candidates are well known or can raise major dollars."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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