Since Crist's name was first mentioned as a candidate for the open Senate seat early this year, it was widely assumed the race was essentially his for the taking. The popular governor has enjoyed strong bipartisan support during his term in office and has in the past been known for bipartisan moves, such as endorsing President Obama's stimulus package last spring. The support among Democrats and independents that resulted led NRSC chair John Cornyn to actively recruit Crist to run after Sen. Mel Martinez announced his retirement last year. But Meek's poll shows that after a summer where Crist has been forced to run to the right after a string of attacks by his GOP primary opponent, conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, that support appears to have suffered.
Crist still leads the overall matchup with Meek by a significant margin, 47-31 according the the poll. But the poll also shows Crist's support is soft -- only 27 percent said they will definitely vote for him. Crist has a nearly 100 percent name ID with voters, while Meek, a four-term representative from Miami, was known to only 25 percent of respondents. Among those who know both men, Meek leads 45-43.
Meek says the numbers show Crist is beatable and have put a new spring in his step.
"I'm picked up by this poll," Meek said in an interview yesterday. "We have a lot of room to move up. Florida looks like a state where [a Democratic win] can actually happen if the resources are there."
"It's a game changer," Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk, said.
The focus for Meek now is now on one thing: money. So far he's been successful in clearing the field of serious primary challengers and raised significant funds, but Crist has shattered fundraising records and would still be favored to win the money battle in any general election. Coupled with his perceived base of support, the equation had left many national observers expected an all-but-impossible uphill climb for Meek in a general election.
But that was before Rubio's insurgent candidacy began stealing conservative elements of the state's GOP base away from Crist, forcing him to take hard-line right-wing positions against health care reform and the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It was also before the state's economy continued to slide, putting Crist in the same position as many incumbent governors this year -- suffering as voters assign them blame for the economic hard times. Forty-six percent of respondents to the poll said Florida's economy was worse than the rest of the nation, and 85 percent said the governor can have at least some impact on how the economy performs.
What's more, Crist's personal and job approval ratings are now starting to separate, meaning it's less and less likely voters will back Crist because of their positive feelings toward him personally. Crist's personal approval rating stands at 56 percent, while less than half (46 percent) of respondents said they approved of the job he's done as governor.
"There's a huge gap in what people think of him personally and how they think he can govern," Dyk said of Crist. "That can work if the numbers go the other direction -- Bill Clinton's job approval always out-paced his personal approval ratings, and he did okay," he joked.
But in Crist's case, "people don't think he's a bad guy -- they just don't think he's a good governor," Dyk added. His decision to forgo a second term and run for Senate hasn't helped -- more than half of respondents agreed with the statement that Crist "is putting his political ambitions ahead of the people of Florida by leaving in the middle of his term."
Across the country, dipping poll numbers for Obama have hurt Democratic candidates for statewide office. But Florida appears to have been less susceptible to this than other swing states like Virginia, where lagging support for Obama has been seen as an albatross around the neck of the Democratic nominee for Governor, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. Obama actually outpaced Crist in both personal and job performance ratings in the Sunshine State according to the poll.
"Florida is more Democratic than people realized," Dyk said.
At the national level, Meek has enjoyed the support of Clinton, unions and other national advocacy groups. But inside the DSCC the support has been softer, with Senators declining to appear with Meek publicly. That's all about to change Tuesday, though, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Florida's senior Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), join Clinton at a Meek fundraiser in Washington. Reid's office and the DSCC did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
"We're still thirteen months out," Meek said. "But this shows us that if we raise resources and field a strong candidate, the Democrats have a chance at winning in Florida. I'm excited to be that candidate."
Late Update: National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh had this to say via e-mail of the Meek poll: "So let me get this straight -- Kendrick Meek, the Democrats' hand-picked candidate for the open seat, does his own poll. That poll shows him losing by 16 points. And, his campaign is seriously spinning that as a good thing? That is absolutely bizarre."