[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/03/16/art.rubio.0218f.gi.jpg caption ="Marco Rubio has opened up a 23 point lead over Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, according to a new poll."](CNN) - Marco Rubio has opened up a 23 point lead over Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the battle for the state's Republican Senate nomination, according to a new poll.
But the Quinnipiac University survey of Florida voters, released Thursday, also indicates that Crist, if he chose to run as an independent, would hold a narrow edge in a three-way contest with Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate in the race.
Fifty-six percent of Republican voters questioned say they would back Rubio, the former state house speaker, in the GOP senate primary, with 33 percent saying they'd support Crist. Rubio's 23 point advantage is up from a three point margin in January, and it's a reversal from last July, when Crist had a 31 point advantage.
"Anything is possible in politics and we have a long way to go until the August primary, but Rubio's surge against a sitting governor from his own party is similar to Ned Lamont's Democratic primary win over Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut in 2006," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "A year ago, many observers questioned Rubio's sanity for potentially risking his bright future by what most at the time considered a quixotic quest."
A Mason Dixon poll conducted last month for a number of Florida newspapers indicated that Rubio was up 11 points over Crist.
Conservative activists have helped catapult Rubio from a long-shot candidate to the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Conservative Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina was an early backer of Rubio, and other top conservatives have added their backing since DeMint's endorsement last summer.
Crist's standing among many Republicans was hurt by his support last year of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. Crist says his support for the stimulus was the right thing to do to help Florida through rough economic times.
The poll indicates that Rubio holds a 24 point advantage over Crist when it comes to sharing the values of Republican voters and a 32 point edge over Crist when it comes to which candidate is more consistently conservative.
"If Crist remains in the GOP primary, and absent the type of game changing scandal of which there is no sign, the governor faces the political equivalent of climbing a 90-degree mountain," says Brown. "But in a three-way, he has a possible path to the U.S. Senate."
According to the survey, Crist would grab 32 percent of the vote if he runs as an independent in November, with Rubio at 30 percent and Meek at 24 percent. Crist's advantage is within the survey's sampling error. The poll indicates that Crist would get 30 percent of Republicans, 27 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of independent voters.
Crist has until the end of the month to declare if he'll remain in the GOP primary or run as an independent.
"The governor is proud of his conservative credentials and stands firmly behind the principles of limited government and more personal freedom, the bedrock values of the Republican Party," Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said in a statement last week.
But in the past few days, the Crist campaign has avoided questions about a possible independent bid, sparking a new round of speculation.
Asked Wednesday in an interview with the Tampa Tribune if he's considering running as an independent, Crist said "I'm not."
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted April 8-13, with 1,250 Florida voters questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
–CNN Political Producer Peter Hamby contributed to this report
–Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @psteinhausercnn