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Poll commissioned by Carlos Curbelo shows him ahead of Miami Rep. Joe Garcia

@PatriciaMazzei

Jeffrey Garcia is hurting Joe Garcia.

That's the conclusion of a recent public-opinion poll conducted by Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo. Poll results were provided to the Miami Herald by the Curbelo campaign.

The survey has Curbelo leading Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat, by 44 to 40 percent, with 16 percent of respondents undecided. The poll's error margin is 4.9 percent.

Curbelo's advantage grew to 51-38 percent among voters who have "seen, read or heard something" -- 61 percent of respondents -- about the congressman's former campaign manager and chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, being under federal criminal investigation into a suspected 2010 straw candidate. (Rep. Garcia has denied any involvement.)

That explains why Democrats have hounded Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member, for failing to disclose a list of his government and public-relations firm, said the Republican's pollster, Jim McLaughlin.

"He's trying to go after Carlos on ethics because of his trouble on ethics," McLaughlin said.

Garcia's campaign, without releasing its own internal polling, characterized the release of the Curbelo poll as an attempt to turn voters' attention away from the question about Curbelo's clients.

"Carlos Curbelo is continuing to try to change the subject from the growing scandal surrounding his refusal to disclose his lobbying clients and his funneling money intended for our schools to his political donors, but releasing a survey from Eric Cantor's pollster which was conducted just as the Miami Herald was printing headlines about criminal complaints filed against Curbelo, isn't very convincing evidence," Garcia campaign spokesman Miguel Salazar said in a statement.

To be clear, the complaint the Florida Democratic Party filed against Curbelo with the U.S. Justice Department asked for a civil -- not criminal -- investigation, though it suggested a potential criminal investigation if "appropriate." Curbelo has dismissed the complaint as "frivolous."

Despite its vast experience in Florida, McLaughlin & Associates, run by brothers Jim and John McLaughlin, has been criticized in political circles because it failed to foresee the stunning primary loss earlier this year for Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But Jim McLaughlin has experience polling the Westchester-to-Key West district; two years ago one of his surveys predicted that then-incumbent David Rivera would lose to Garcia by 10 points. Rivera lost by 11.

The gap doesn't appear to be that wide in the Garcia-Curbelo match-up -- President Barack Obama won the district by 7 points in 2012 -- but McLaughlin said Garcia's 40-percent popularity is low for a sitting congressman in a year of nationwide anti-incumbent sentiment.

"It's obviously a competitive race, because folks are still forming their opinions," McLaughlin said.

The poll of 400 likely voters was conducted in English and Spanish from Sept. 9-11. It included 100 voters interviewed via cell phones. Respondents, picked from a list of registered voters, were considered "likely" to cast ballots Nov. 4 if they voted in one of the past three general elections and said they intended to participate in this year's midterms.

Of course, a lot could happen between now and Election Day. Garcia has raised far more in campaign cash than Curbelo -- which means more money for television ads -- and unlike the Republican did not have to spend any of it on a contested primary race.

Garcia's campaign said the congressman's constituents will vote based on the work they have seen the Democrat do in his freshman term.

"South Floridians know that Rep. Garcia always puts them first –- and the support we receive from the tens of thousands of conversations we've had over the past months is a much more accurate barometer of what South Floridians want from their representative in Washington," spokesman Salazar's statement said.

Curbelo's margin over Garcia has grown from an earlier survey McLaughlin said he conducted in May, which showed Garcia leading Curbelo 46-39 percent.

A June 2013 poll, also by McLaughlin for Curbelo, showed Garcia with a double-digit lead but identified the baggage from the absentee-ballot scandal to resulted in his former chief of staff's jail sentence as a significant political vulnerability.

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