In a bad omen for Republican hopes of capturing the state's two U.S. Senate seats, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have pulled neck and neck with their opponents in the crucial GOP stronghold of Orange County, a Times Orange County Poll has found.
The Democratic pair's solid showing does not bode well for the Republican hopefuls, Sen. John Seymour and Los Angeles television commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who have been counting on a hefty haul of votes in conservative Orange County to win election statewide.
Feinstein staged the most remarkable comeback, pulling into a dead heat with Seymour on the incumbent senator's home turf. Each got 44% in the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Seymour, a former Anaheim mayor who also represented the county in the Assembly and state Senate, led by 13 points over Feinstein in a Times poll conducted a month ago.
Boxer, meanwhile, cut her Orange County deficit in half, drawing to within 4 percentage points of Herschensohn after finishing 8 points down in the late August poll. Herschensohn led with 45% of the vote compared to 41% for Boxer, who had trailed the GOP candidate 49% to 41% last month.
The Times Orange County Poll, conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, contacted a random sample of 600 registered voters in the county between last Thursday and Sunday.
"It's going to be very difficult for John Seymour and Bruce Herschensohn to win statewide with the level of support they've achieved in Orange County," Baldassare said. "There is a mood among Orange County voters for sweeping change, and both Feinstein and Boxer are benefiting from that mood."
The two Democrats fared even better among people who said they would probably vote Nov. 3. Feinstein pulled into a slight lead over Seymour, 45% to 44%, with 10% undecided. Herschensohn's thin edge over Boxer grew even thinner, 45% to 42%, with 12% unsure.
Republican candidates in statewide races historically have had to record a knockout victory in Orange County to stand a chance of winning in California. To offset heavy Democratic surpluses in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, GOP candidates typically count on at least a 200,000-vote margin in Orange County, which normally translates into winning at least 60% of the vote.
But the performance of Seymour and Herschensohn in the poll doesn't even approach Republican Party registration in Orange County, where about 54% of the voters identify themselves as members of the GOP while 34% are Democrats.
The two Republicans also have performed poorly in statewide polls. In a Los Angeles Times poll conducted Sept. 10 through 13 among 1,330 California voters, Boxer led Herschensohn 52% to 33%, with 15% undecided, while Feinstein held a 53% to 37% edge over Seymour, with 10% unsure.
In Orange County, the two Democrats have shared voter strength with the top of their party's ticket. Three of four people voting for Democratic presidential challenger Bill Clinton are backing Feinstein, while seven of 10 Clinton supporters are siding with Boxer.
A gender gap also has emerged in Orange County, with the two women Democrats pulling strongly among women and the two male Republicans performing strongly among men.
Feinstein enjoys the support of 52% of the women voters, while 36% back Seymour. Among men, the support was almost reversed, with 53% backing Seymour and 35% favoring Feinstein. Boxer's edge among women isn't so strong, with 45% behind her and 40% favoring Herschensohn, while 37% of the men backed the Democrat and 50% favored the Republican.
Bill Barry, an Irvine Republican, said he plans to vote a straight GOP ticket, reasoning that getting more Democrats out of Congress will help President Bush if he is reelected. His problem with the two Democratic women isn't their sex, but their beliefs.
"It's just the fact that they aren't Republicans," said Barry, who owns a window-coverings business in Mission Viejo. "I don't like where they try to make it an all-female type of election. It doesn't make any difference whether it's female or male. Some of them push female, female, female. I'm tired of that."
The two Democrats also are pulling voters away from the Republican ranks. Feinstein and Boxer each were endorsed by 27% of the GOP voters, while Herschensohn is favored by 21% of Democratic voters and Seymour by 20%.
Baldassare said there was also a significant defection to Feinstein among Republican women in Orange County. Of the Republicans who back the former San Francisco mayor, two of three are women. Boxer's support among Republicans is divided almost equally between men and women.
Among the potential crossover Republicans is Mindy Uranga, 32, a Santa Ana mother of two. Uranga has voted solidly for GOP candidates since she first registered at age 18. But she now says the nation's economic slump and other problems cry out for different leadership. She plans to vote for the two Democrats.