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Florida Senate race moves to "Lean Republican"

Florida's three-way Senate race between former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) is one of the marquee contests of the 2010 election cycle.

It also appears to have moved in Rubio's favor since the Aug. 24 primary and, as a result, we are moving the Senate contest from "toss up" to "lean Republican".

Since Sept. 1, four polls have been released in the race. Three -- including one by the automated polling firm Rasmussen, which has its detractors -- show Rubio with a double-digit lead over Crist. One, which was conducted by CNN, shows Rubio at 36 percent to 34 percent for Crist and 24 percent for Meek.

The CNN survey looks like an outlier in that quartet and for good reason -- it was the only poll that tested registered rather than likely voters. This close to an election (and particularly an election where Republican enthusiasm is far outstripping Democratic energy) the preferred sample is likely voters. And, the similarity of the three likely voters surveys coupled with conversations with increasingly pessimistic Democratic operatives occasioned the ratings change.

Why has Rubio strengthened his hand?

First, Republicans are starting to coalesce around him. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 67 percent of registered Republicans are backing Rubio while 22 percent are backing Crist and seven percent are undecided. Democrats, meanwhile, remain fractured; 47 percent are backing Meek while 31 percent are behind Crist.

The closer the election gets, the better the chance that basic partisanship will assert itself -- meaning Rubio will strengthen even more with Republicans and Meek will benefit from some solidifying of base Democrats behind him. Crist, in that scenario, is a man without a country.

Second, Crist and Meek are battling each other for the same voters and the national Democratic party has offered no formal signal of who they prefer to win that fight. (Crist has sent clear signals that if he won, he would likely caucus with Democrats in the 112th Congress.) While Rubio can focus on solidifying his GOP base and reaching out to independents, Meek and Crist are each fighting to hold their share of Democrats.

Third, the focus of the coverage on Crist since the primary has been on his penchant for taking different positions based on the audience he is talking to. "Career politician Charlie Crist will say anything," says the narrator of a new Club for Growth ad going up in Florida today. "Washington already has enough slippery politicians."

The "Crist as politician" narrative has damaged the once popular governor, making him look opportunistic in an election cycle where authenticity is the name of the game.

Crist's financial standing -- $8 million on hand in pre-primary filings -- means he will still have something to say about the state of the race in the final 46 days. But, he clearly faces an uphill fight in a race that is rapidly becoming Rubio's to lose.

With Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | September 16, 2010; 3:17 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Club for Growth launches five-state ad blitz; Florida Senate moves to "Lean Republican"

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