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Herald/Times poll: Nelson ahead of Mack by eight points

The Republican shot at unseating U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is slipping away, according to a new Miami Herald poll.

Nelson leads Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV 48-40 percent, the new poll shows, a three-point shift in the Democrat's favor since July.

That's the good news for Mack, who is losing by double-digits in a slew of other recent surveys.

With the exception of an outlier poll from an Orlando firm, Gravis Marketing, Mack has been trailing between 8 and 14 points in the last seven statewide polls. The average of those polls, as compiled by Real Clear Politics, lists the spread at eight points, matching the Herald poll.

The percentage of undecided voters, however, remains unusually high at 11 percent, with six weeks to go in the race.

Mack's decline is even sharper when voters are asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. In July, 30 percent of voters surveyed said they had a favorable view of the four-term U.S. representative from Cape Coral and his unfavorable rating was only 13 percent. Now, Mack is disliked by 33 percent of the voters surveyed and his favorability rating has dropped to 27 percent. Read more here.

The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the Nov. 6 election — was conducted Sept. 17-19 for The Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13.

The poll, which included respondents using land-lines and cell phones, was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Mack’s plummet corresponds with Nelson’s aggressive statewide TV campaign that has been pounding the congressman’s hard-partying youth, financial woes, divorce and attendance record in Congress.

“He’s trying to make Mack look worse than he is,’’ said pollster Brad Coker. “So far it’s working.”

Some Republicans fear the gap may now be too wide to close, absent a surge of help from the coattails of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“At this point, for Mack to win, Romney would probably have to pull about 53 percent of the vote,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.

Meanwhile, Nelson is acting as if Florida is not a swing state. He has agreed to one debate, Oct. 17, and has not agreed to do a CNN-sponsored debate of swing-state races on Oct. 30.

By contrast, Mack has scheduled a bus tour through North and Central Florida next week, the only region where polls show Mack is ahead. He is hoping to appeal to his base and weaken Nelson’s pull among conservatives in the region.

But Nelson is not entirely out of the woods. He has been heavily targeted by Republicans as one of the vulnerable incumbents they hope to oust in their march toward regaining a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Coker points to Nelson’s low favorability ratings, which have dropped from 36 percent in the July poll to 33 percent now.

“That’s probably due to the fact that people aren’t really crazy about Nelson, but they’re just learning about Mack,’’ Coker said. “It’s still a situation where Nelson isn’t comfortable yet.”

Mack avoided much of the shrapnel from his past during the primary, keeping a low profile, but that also created the opening for Nelson to profile him.

Now, third-party groups, such as the Freedom PAC, which received $1 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are coming to Mack’s aid and financing a two-week pro-Mack ad that shows excerpts of his speech at the Republican National Convention.

Another ad, which Mack ran last week, is being paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In it, Mack attempts to tie Nelson with President Barack Obama, saying they are “lockstep liberals.”

The liberal line was used successfully by Mack’s father, the former U.S. senator of the same name, when he ran for the Senate in 1988. The elder Mack attacked his opponent, Buddy MacKay, with the line: “Hey Buddy, You’re a Liberal.”

Nelson, the last of Florida’s cracker-style Democrats who has held elected office since 1972, has kept his distance from his party’s liberal wing. He built his career appealing to moderate and conservative voters, even staying away from the Democratic National Convention, except for a brief appearance to raise money.

His supporters say that is part of the reason Nelson has retained his seat despite challenges from heavily financed Republicans. It may also explain why, according to the Herald/Times poll, he gets 53 percent of the independent vote, compared to 34 percent by Mack.

Pollsters say that while enthusiasm isn’t deep for Nelson among Democrats, neither is it this year among Republicans for Mack.

Mack should be able to rely on votes from people like John Wiegner, a 64-year-old retired U.S. Special Forces colonel from Valrico. Wiegner is a registered Republican and no fan of Nelson — but he is also lukewarm about Mack.

“The only thing going for him is his great-grandfather,” said Wiegner, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., and rooted for the Philadelphia Athletics, which were managed by Mack’s great-grandfather, Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr.. who was also known as Connie Mack, from 1901 to 1950. “But he’s not bringing anything else to the table. He’s not giving me any reason to vote for him.”

Wiegner said one turn-off is the tenor of the ads both candidates have aired.

“They’re both so negative,” he said. “I abhor not voting for a candidate, so I won’t, but Mack isn’t making it easy for me.”

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Tampa Bay Times reporters Michael Van Sickler and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas