marco_rubio_web_fc.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Gov. Charlie Crist has cut into Republican Marco Rubio's once sizable lead in Florida's three-way U.S. Senate contest as Democrats abandon the candidacy of their party's nominee, a new poll released Thursday shows.

Crist, however, still faces a difficult task as Rubio retains a seven-point lead going into Tuesday's voting, according to a Quinnipiac (Conn.) University poll.

Meanwhile, Democrat Alex Sink clings to a slight advantage over Republican Rick Scott in one of the nastiest and most expensive governor's races in Florida history. Sink received 45 percent to Scott's 41 percent with 11 percent undecided. Nine percent say they might change their minds.

"This race looks like it will go to the finish line as a dead heat,'' said Peter Brown, assistant director of the poll. "She has some momentum, but anything can happen in the final days.''

Quinnipiac questioned 784 likely voters by telephone Oct. 18 and 24. The random survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The poll had Rubio with 42 percent to Crist's 35 percent while Democrat Kendrick Meek fell to 15 percent in the Senate race where Crist is running as an independent. Rubio, who built his lead largely on criticism of President Barack Obama's policies, led Crist by a 44 to 30 percent margin two weeks ago in a similar Quinnipiac poll where Meek was favored by 22 percent.

"Gov. Crist has pulled within hailing distance,'' said Brown, who noted added that the incumbent governor will likely suffer on Election Day without any party machinery to assist a get-out-the-vote effort. Crist's name is also near the bottom of the ballot.

"Marco Rubio's in the driver's seat,'' Brown said.

Meek, who surrendered a safe congressional seat from Miami to make the Senate race, lost about a third of his support in the last two weeks. Voters apparently started to realize that sticking with Meek only enhances the conservative Rubio's chances for victory.

The new poll has Crist backed by 51 percent of registered Democrats to 36 percent who say they're sticking with their party's nominee.

Rubio's criticism of Obama helped propel him to the forefront of the race. He quickly surpassed Crist in polls on a Republican primary after the governor greeted the president with a hug in Fort Myers in early 2009.

Crist's defection from the GOP infuriated party loyalists, who now solidly back Rubio by an overwhelming 77-19 percent margin in the Quinnipiac survey.

Sink, the state's chief financial officer, started to get traction with voters in early October, catching Scott in Quinnipiac's poll two weeks ago when both candidates were roughly even with Scott at 45 percent and Sink at 44 percent. Her continuous attacks on Scott about his tenure at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which paid the largest Medicare fraud settlement in history at $1.7 billion, appeared to be boosting her with voters.

Scott, who was never charged with a crime, said he wanted to fight the charges, but was forced out by his board in 1997. He denied knowing about any fraud, although he took responsibility for it occurring on his watch.

A political newcomer and tea party favorite, Scott won the Republican primary over Attorney General Bill McCollum despite similar charges in that campaign. Scott has spent roughly $60 million of his own fortune in his gubernatorial bid.

For his part, Scott has blamed Sink for losses in Florida's pension fund during the recession, lax management when she was president of Bank of America's Florida operation and failing to provide proper oversight while serving on corporate boards.

Crist's decision to not seek re-election as governor to make his bid for Washington, created a domino effect on Florida's politics. Sink and McCollum decided they wanted to be governor and seemed headed for a November showdown without any serious opposition before Scott came out of nowhere to win the GOP nomination.