Democratic Rep. Barbara Boxer's once-lopsided lead over Republican Bruce Herschensohn in their U.S. Senate race has been halved to nine points among all registered voters and to just five among those likely to cast ballots, The Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
In California's other Senate race, however, Democrat Dianne Feinstein is maintaining a lead of 19 points over Republican Sen. John Seymour among registered voters.
After paying little attention to these two contests through the summer, voters clearly are sizing up the candidates as the Nov. 3 election approaches. And as wavering voters have taken critical looks in recent weeks, Herschensohn has gained the momentum, Times Poll interviews showed.
The statewide survey indicated that many voters who were previously undecided appear to have sided with the former Los Angeles television commentator, who scored a campaign coup by running two weeks of effective TV commercials before the Marin County congresswoman went on the air with her ads.
Although Boxer has lost little support overall, Herschensohn has made substantial gains among people age 65 and older, independents, Republicans--men and women--and so-called Reagan Democrats, the poll found. He also has picked up ground in Northern California.
Boxer and Feinstein benefit from running in the Year of the Woman and in an election where the political pendulum is swinging toward the Democratic Party. A plurality of voters believe that the Democratic Party will be better than the GOP at handling California's problems, an attitude that has increased during the last 17 months, various Times surveys have shown.
But voters are closely divided on the importance of electing a woman to the Senate and most think it is not important to elect two women, according to interviews.
Also, in the midst of a stubborn recession with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost and many more in jeopardy, Californians appear to be siding more with Republican positions than with Democrats on the issues of defense cuts and environmental regulations.
The Times Poll, directed by John Brennan, interviewed 1,110 registered voters by telephone for four days ending Friday night. Among these were 833 people considered likely to vote. The margin of error for all registered voters was three percentage points in either direction. For likely voters it was four points.
Among registered voters, Boxer led Herschensohn by 50% to 41%, with 1% for other candidates and 8% undecided. In a mid-September Times survey, Boxer enjoyed a 19-point lead: 52% to 33%, with 15% undecided.
When only the likely voters were counted in the new poll, Boxer's lead tightened to 49% to 44%, with 1% for someone else and 6% undecided.
In the other race, Feinstein held a formidable lead over Seymour, 56% to 37%, with 1% for someone else and 6% undecided. This represented a slight gain for the former San Francisco mayor from mid-September, when she led 53% to 37% with 10% undecided.
Among likely voters, Feinstein led comfortably by 14 points, 54% to 40% with 6% undecided.
Boxer and Herschensohn are running for the seat occupied by veteran Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who is retiring. Feinstein and Seymour are competing to fill the remaining two years of the term vacated by Republican Pete Wilson when he was elected governor in 1990.
Since he was appointed by Wilson 22 months ago, Seymour has been an obscure figure for many Californians. But the electorate's awareness of him and the other candidates has increased markedly since mid-September, not always to their benefit.
Only 28% of voters now do not know enough about Seymour to have an impression of him, compared to 51% in the September survey. But people also have a more negative impression of him--33% favorable and 39% unfavorable. In contrast, Feinstein, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990, is very familiar to voters. Only 10% do not know enough about her to have an opinion. Among those surveyed, she was viewed favorably by 53% and unfavorably by 37%.
Herschensohn's name identification has increased substantially in recent weeks. Only 22% now have no opinion of him, compared to 47% in September. But voters remain closely divided in their views of the strongly conservative candidate, with 40% viewing him favorably and 38% unfavorably.
Boxer's recognition also has risen; just 19% now have no opinion of her, compared to 42% in September. But she is not viewed as positively as before, with 45% having a favorable impression and 36% reacting unfavorably.
Evidence that Herschensohn has outmaneuvered Boxer in the battle of TV commercials was found in the survey. Voters who reported seeing the commercials of both candidates--41% of those interviewed--favored Boxer by only a narrow, four-point margin. But people who said they saw neither candidates' ads supported Boxer by a 17-point margin.