Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, whose gubernatorial hopes were dismissed as little better than a pipe dream last spring, has been steadily whittling away at Gov. George Deukmejian's lead and now is threatening to make a real race of their fall election contest.
Helped by senior citizens, independents, Latinos and voters of the San Francisco Bay Area--many of them evidently persuaded by his attacks on Deukmejian's toxics record--the underdog challenger has pulled to within 9 percentage points of the incumbent, based on the latest survey of The Los Angeles Times Poll.
But more important than the point spread is the trend--a slow, gradual shaving away of Deukmejian's once-enormous lead. From 17 points behind in a Times poll of late March, Bradley moved to within 12 points by mid-May and to within 9 as of this week--a total narrowing of 8 points in less than four months.
Running Out of Time
Of course, Bradley would have to escalate that pace dramatically in order to catch Deukmejian by Election Day, now less than two months away. And working against the Democratic candidate is the fact that the Republican governor is entering the stretch drive with some significant advantages: Roughly 10 times as much campaign money (he expects to raise about $1 million more tonight at a Los Angeles dinner), a healthy economy that normally helps an incumbent, an Administration relatively free of major scandal and good image among the voters.
Beyond that, these two candidates--neither of whom are especially electrifying--already have been around the track together once with the voters, having four years ago run the closest race in a California gubernatorial election since 1902. Deukmejian won by a scant 1.2% of the votes cast.
The latest statewide Times Poll, directed by I.A. Lewis, ended Tuesday night after six days of telephone interviews with 1,550 registered voters. It showed Deukmejian leading by 45% to 36%, with 19% having no opinion. The margin of error for this size survey is 3% in either direction.
The interviewers also offered respondents the names of three minor party candidates who will be on the ballot--Libertarian Joseph Fuhrig, American Independent Garry V. Miller and Maria-Elizabeth Munoz of the Peace and Freedom Party--but there was virtually no support for any of these people.
The trend toward a closer race during the past several months has been unmistakable. Other independent polling organizations also have observed it. The California Poll, directed by Mervin Field, found that the mayor had picked up 11 points between early May and early August, moving from 22 points behind to 11. Polls by Steve Teichner for KABC-TV in Los Angeles showed the mayor narrowing the gap by 11 points, from a 17 point deficit to just 6, between May and last week.
One potential advantage for Bradley is that the nearly one-in-five voters who so far have no firm opinion about who should be California's next governor normally would lean toward the Democratic candidate, if he could get them to the polls on Nov. 4. They tend to be Democrats or independents, who are liberal or apolitical; young, working-class people, perhaps in the service industries, with lower-to-middle incomes, and female. They also indicated they would be more likely than most to vote for a black.
One particular challenge for Bradley as he campaigns for undecided voters, however, is that they tend to reside in regions where Deukmejian's lead is the largest--in locales outside the two major metropolitan centers of Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area.
In Los Angeles County, Deukmejian and Bradley are running almost even, with the governor holding a minuscule 2-point lead. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Bradley leads by a whopping 20 points. But in the rest of Northern California, Deukmejian enjoys an even bigger 31-point lead. And in Southern California outside of Los Angeles County, the governor is ahead by 17 points.
Strong on Toxics
It is in the San Francisco Bay Area--a traditional bastion for Democrats, where the environmentalist movement is strong--that Bradley has recorded some of his most spectacular gains since May, picking up 27 points on the governor. Even more so than most Californians, Bay Area voters said they are worried about toxic waste.
Among all Californians surveyed, the problem of drugs was chosen as the most important issue in the gubernatorial campaign. This was particularly true in Southern California outside of Los Angeles County. But in the Bay Area, the most important issue was toxic waste, which rated only No. 2 on the statewide list.
Bradley and Deukmejian, in their campaigning, have only just begun to capitalize on the voters' increasing anxiety about drug addiction--a concern that certainly will intensify even more after President Reagan and his wife Nancy address the nation on the issue Sunday from the White House.