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THE TIMES POLL : Majority Disapprove of Wilson Presidential Bid : Politics: But his popularity in the state is up. Proposed affirmative action initiative has overwhelming support.

March 12, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson has bounced back in popularity among Californians, but their goodwill does not extend to his next potential political venue: By a huge margin, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found, voters say Wilson should not run for President.

Almost two-thirds of voters--including 59% of Republicans--said Wilson should not seek the 1996 Republican nomination. And in a hypothetical contest with President Clinton, Wilson loses his own state by a substantial margin, 51% to 42%.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who is the most popular prospective Republican nominee in the survey, narrowly defeats Clinton in California, but the President would defeat other lesser-known Republican candidates if the election were held now.

The Times Poll presented Wilson with a classic case of good news and bad news. Although he is undeniably more popular now than he has been since the recession began to take its toll on the state in 1991, Wilson cannot take for granted the major strength he would supposedly bring to the presidential race--the ability to capture the nation's biggest electoral state, one that is a must-win for Clinton.

The survey also showed that Wilson's recent overtures to his party's conservatives have paid off in strong support from that wing, from whom he was once estranged. But they appear to have alienated some Republican moderates who defect from him to Clinton in a hypothetical matchup.

One measure recently embraced by Wilson in the run-up to his presidential decision is overwhelmingly popular among voters, the poll showed. Fully two-thirds of the state's registered voters favor a proposed initiative that would prohibit using race or gender to discriminate against or benefit people in government employment or university enrollments.

The proposal, which is likely to appear on the November, 1996, ballot, has come under fire from proponents of affirmative action who contend that it would gut 30 years of efforts to spur advancement by minorities and women. They have their work cut out: Only 26% of registered voters oppose the proposed initiative, which is favored by whites, Asian Americans and Latinos. Black voters are split on the measure.

Californians favored Wilson's proposed 15% tax cut, by a narrow margin of 48%-44%. They also sided with the governor in his refusal to implement a new law that would require states to allow voters to register when they get a driver's license or apply for public assistance. The governor contends that the state cannot afford to enforce the law unless the federal government pays for it.

But they are split on a proposal to change the state Constitution to deny Lt. Gov. Gray Davis an automatic bump up to the governorship if Wilson were to be elected President. That proposal has been advanced by some Wilson partisans as a way around the politically distasteful reality that a Democrat would become governor if Wilson were to become President.

The poll was conducted March 4-9 with 1,390 Californians, 1,011 of whom are registered voters. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is 3 percentage points in either direction; for registered voters it is 4 points in either direction. Margins of error for smaller subgroups may be larger.

Times Poll Director John Brennan cautioned that Wilson's relatively poor showing in the presidential arena may be a typical response by voters to the desire of a governor to seek higher office: More often than not, home-staters tend to throw cold water on the idea.

"That doesn't mean he can't consolidate them later on," Brennan said.

And he could, of course, gain ground on Clinton with the general election 20 months away. Wilson is, after all, the same politician who fought back from a 20-point deficit to defeat Democrat Kathleen Brown in November's gubernatorial election.

But the poll underscored that Wilson's improvement now is relative. Although his job approval ratings were the best since the spring after his first inauguration in 1991, he still was lauded by only 47% of all voters, with 44% disliking the job he has done.

That rating has swerved like a roller coaster during Wilson's time in office, which has been deluged by natural disasters. In May, 1991, 52% approved of Wilson, but by October, 1992, he had bottomed out at 28% support. Since then, as the state's economy has sputtered toward improvement, Wilson has gradually improved his standing.

"His job rating is improved but not stellar," Brennan said.

An indication that Wilson is either not desired or not thought of as a Republican presidential nominee came when Republicans interviewed in the poll were asked to list their favorite in the race.

Dole was far and away the leader, with 27% supporting him, 9% favoring Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and 6% naming Wilson. Although Gramm has sought to carve a niche as the most conservative candidate in the race, the poll showed that Dole captured even self-described conservative Republicans, 27% to Gramm's 12%. Most voters were undecided.

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