UPDATE 1-Tea Party Republican opens clear lead in Florida

Wed Sep 15, 2010 1:32pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Republican candidate Marco Rubio has opened a clear lead in a Florida Senate race, becoming the latest "Tea Party" favorite to benefit from voter anger at Washington, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found on Wednesday.

Six weeks ahead of Nov. 2 congressional elections, Rubio leads state Governor Charlie Crist, an independent, by 40 percent to 26 percent among likely voters, the poll found. Democrat Kendrick Meek trails at 21 percent.

The conservative Tea Party roiled Republican politics when a little-known candidate backed by the movement beat a veteran lawmaker in Delaware on Tuesday in the race to decide the Republican nominee for Senate in the November election.

The Tea Party is a loose-knit group of mostly Republicans concerned about reducing government spending and debt who are strong critics of President Barack Obama. The group is gaining support this election season.

Florida, like other states, has a large "enthusiasm gap" with Republicans far more motivated to vote in November than Democrats. The poll said 82 percent of Republicans said they are certain to vote, compared to 61 percent of Democrats.

Crist, a former Republican who turned independent, and Meek are likely splitting Democratic votes, according to the poll.

When voters were asked their choice between Rubio and Crist if Meek was not in the race, the contest is essentially tied -- Rubio 46 percent, and Crist 45 percent.

Crist still has strong job approval ratings as Florida governor, with a majority of Floridians saying they approve of the way he is handling his job.

The poll found the race to replace Crist as governor is very close with Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink statistically tied, Scott with 47 percent and Sink with 45 percent.

Concern about the economy in Florida has increased 10 points since the last poll in early July -- 61 percent said the economy is the biggest problem facing the state, up from 51 percent. This could be related to declining concern about the BP Plc oil spill that afflicted the Gulf area.

The Ipsos poll of 600 registered Florida voters, of which 486 said they are likely to vote, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points among registered voters and 4.6 percentage points among likely voters.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Eric Beech)

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