With backing from independent voters and little sign of damage from his party switching, former Gov. Charlie Crist has a comfortable lead over Gov. Rick Scott amid speculation that they will battle next year for the state's top job, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Crist leads Scott by a margin of 50 percent to 34 percent, as the incumbent Republican continues to have low voter-approval ratings, the Quinnipiac University poll shows. Former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial race and has been discussed as a potential 2014 Democratic candidate, also leads Scott by 45 percent to 34 percent.
The poll shows, however, that Scott has a healthy lead over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in a widely discussed possible Republican primary race. Also, it shows voters overwhelmingly support a Scott proposal to give teachers $2,500 raises.
"There isn't much good news in these numbers for Gov. Rick Scott, but there is some,'' Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a news release about the poll results. "His large lead over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in a hypothetical Republican primary gives him some solace that he does not have to worry about an intraparty challenge. Scott's support among Republicans appears pretty solid, although he has a lot of fences to mend with independent voters and he has virtually no crossover appeal to Democrats."
Crist, once a popular figure in the Republican Party, unsuccessfully ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Last year, he campaigned heavily for President Barack Obama and went on to change his registration to Democrat --- fueling speculation that he would try to return to the governor's mansion.
The new poll indicates that 50 percent of voters, including 76 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents, think Crist's party switching is a positive thing. It found that 40 percent of voters, including 80 percent of Republicans, viewed Crist's moves negatively.
Scott continues to struggle with his perception among voters, with the poll showing 46 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him and 33 percent have a favorable opinion. By contrast, 49 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Crist, while 30 percent had an unfavorable opinion.
Similarly, the poll indicates 49 percent of voters disapprove of the way Scott is handling his job, while 36 percent approve.
Voters, however, appear solidly behind the idea of giving teachers $2,500 raises, one of Scott's top legislative priorities. The poll found that 74 percent of voters --- including clear majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents --- think the raises are a good idea, while 21 percent think they're a bad idea.
Scott drew conservative criticism last month when he announced support for expanding the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. But 50 percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll said they think expanding Medicaid eligibility is a good idea, while 40 percent disagree.
Quinnipiac, which is based in Connecticut, regularly conducts polls in Florida and other states. The poll released Wednesday was conducted from March 13 to March 18 and included 1,000 registered voters. The margin of error was 3.1 percentage points.