Self-declaring as the "clear front-runners" in Florida's contentious U.S. Senate race, Democrat Alan Grayson and Republican David Jolly say they have agreed to a series of head-to-head debates between this month and the November election.
The congressmen's joint announcement capitalizes on the latest Public Policy Polling poll, released earlier today, which found Jolly and Grayson each with more than 25 percent of likely voters' support and with double-digit leads in their respective party primaries.
Grayson told the Herald/Times that none of the other contenders -- Democrat Patrick Murphy and Republicans Ron DeSantis, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Carlos Beruff and Todd Wilcox -- was invited because, he said, "nobody else is really in contention."
"We're both polling with double-digit leads and that's been consistent," Grayson said.
However, the PPP poll was far from a decisive declaration of the race. In both the Republican and Democratic contests, almost half of voters polled remain "undecided" -- a consistent theme in other polls on the race for Marco Rubio's open U.S. Senate seat.
The crowded field has meant all of the candidates, particularly on the Republican side, have struggled to stand out.
Grayson said he invited Jolly to do the debates; he said the congressman from Indian Shores "well and ably represents the Republican point of view."
They want the match-ups to be "genuine debates on the major issues of the day" akin to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Grayson said.
Jolly said the debates will provide the opportunity "to contrast our differing views for the future of Florida and the country."
"Control of the United States Senate will have a direct impact on our economy and our national security - and control of the Senate may depend on who is elected from Florida," Jolly said in a campaign statement.
Grayson said, "We don't want to turn this into the circus we've seen in the Republican debates."
"It's descending into mudslinging and spit-balling. We have agreed to make a strong effort to elevate that debate," he said.
Grayson is perhaps best-known for his fiery personality and colorful language, in which he's not afraid to criticize those he disagrees with. When asked whether he could adhere to that pledge to "elevate the debate," Grayson did not directly respond. He cited his congressional record of passing more amendments and bills into law than any other current member. (More on that claim from Politifact)
"I have a record of accomplishing Democratic and progressive values unmatched in the House of Representatives," the Orlando congressman said.
Grayson's and Murphy's contest has been especially competitive, with Murphy earning strong support from the Democratic establishment and Grayson getting favor from progressives and small-dollar donors nationwide.
Grayson told the Herald/Times he "really doesn't care" to debate Murphy ahead of their August primary, in which North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith is also running.
"He's ducked every opportunity for us to appear together," Grayson said of Murphy.
The Grayson and Jolly campaigns said they planned to host two debates in their respective regions -- Tampa and Orlando -- with more possible in Jacksonville, South Florida or elsewhere across the state.
In PPP's survey for the Republicans, Jolly had 26 percent support, with 14 percent for DeSantis, 11 percent for Lopez-Cantera and 2 percent for Wilcox. Beruff just joined the race this week and wasn't included in the poll, which was done Feb. 24-25.
In the Democratic survey, Grayson led Murphy, 33 percent to 22 percent.
Overall, Murphy had the strongest chances in general-election match-ups, the poll found.
Grayson had the most name recognition of any candidate -- but 31 percent view him unfavorably, compared to 16 percent who have a favorable view of him. That's likely a reflection of Grayson's controversies of late, particularly his management of hedge funds, which has made him the target of a congressional ethics investigation.
PPP surveyed about 1,000 registered voters -- 464 likely Republicans and 388 likely Democrats. The margin of error was 4.6 percentage points for the Republicans and 5 percentage points for Democrats.