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THE TIMES POLL : Feinstein Keeping Slim Lead Over Huffington


California voters are increasingly sour about both of their choices for U.S. Senate, but for the first time since early spring the Los Angeles Times Poll found that incumbent Dianne Feinstein's lead over Republican challenger Mike Huffington has stopped shrinking.

Feinstein's seven-point edge--49% to 42%--among those voters who said they were most likely to cast a ballot on Election Day is about the same as it was in a Times poll completed about a month ago. Among all registered voters, Feinstein is favored 49% to 40% over Huffington, a freshman congressman from Santa Barbara.

Each previous poll conducted this year by The Times has found Feinstein's lead cut about in half. It dropped from 30 points to 14 points between March and May, then to 6 points by September.

"It is still a close race that could go either way," said Susan Pinkus, who supervised The Times' statewide survey completed last Tuesday. "Opinions are very volatile."

Although the head-to-head matchup did not change from September, the latest poll found opinions of both candidates were still plummeting.

Nearly half of the state's voters now have an unfavorable impression of the incumbent Democrat and, for the first time since her statewide support was measured by The Times in March, 1990, Feinstein's rating was more negative than positive. Just 39% of the respondents had a favorable opinion of her.

It was a dramatic turnabout for Feinstein, driven largely by a barrage of attack television commercials from Huffington that have aired with little interruption for the last seven months. Feinstein has also waged a largely negative television campaign since June, but she has had far less to spend.

Just last March, Feinstein was ranked the most popular politician in California with nearly two-thirds of the state's voters reporting a favorable opinion of the freshman senator. Now, she is given lower marks than Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whose ratings have rebounded modestly since the beginning of the year.

Feinstein's performance on the job was also graded lower than both Wilson's and President Clinton's.

For Huffington, the poll indicates that voters are beginning to form opinions about the Republican nominee, who was virtually unknown in California when he began his bid for the U.S. Senate.

With less than a month remaining until the Nov. 8 election, a quarter of the respondents still say they do not know enough about the GOP candidate to express an opinion. But that's down sharply from last month, when more than half said they knew little about Huffington.

Most of those who have made up their minds, however, appear to have developed a negative impression of Huffington. Since last month, those reporting an unfavorable opinion of Huffington almost doubled to 45% while those with a favorable impression increased by about 8 points to 31%.

The Times Poll questioned 1,232 registered voters, of whom 821 are considered likely to cast a ballot. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is 3 percentage points in either direction; for likely voters it is 4 points in either direction. Margins of error for smaller subgroups of voters may be larger.

California's U.S. Senate race is headed for a national record as the most expensive congressional contest in history, due largely to the expectation that Huffington will spend more than $20 million of his personal fortune on the campaign.

Most of the money has gone for television commercials and both candidates have spent most of their money on attacks, the most cost-effective political tactic.

One result is that the credibility of both candidates has suffered. Feinstein retains a small edge on the issue, with about a third of the respondents saying she is more honest than her opponent, compared to about a quarter who sided with Huffington.

Another effect of the negative emphasis is that about half of the state's voters consider their choice of candidates to be "the lesser of two evils," not a politician they like. That feeling was significant for both candidates, but it was more common among Huffington's supporters (58%) than Feinstein's (45%).

Last week, voters got their first good look at the two candidates when Feinstein and Huffington debated on CNN's "Larry King Live" program. But while debates can sometimes be a turning point in close political races, the poll indicates that this exchange has not been a significant factor.

Just 19% of voters said they saw the debate and many of those said it had no effect on their decision. Huffington did slightly better than Feinstein among voters who said the debate shaped their opinion.

In another recent development, Huffington's wife has been the subject of numerous media stories examining her role in the campaign and her past connection to a controversial religious sect. But the survey indicated that most voters consider a candidate's spouse to be out of bounds for political debate.

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