Al Gore and George W. Bush have established commanding leads to win the delegates at stake in next week's California presidential primaries, a Times Poll has found.
As the Democratic candidates arrive in Los Angeles for a nationally televised debate tonight, former Sen. Bill Bradley has seen his support collapse and now trails Vice President Gore by nearly 5 to 1 among Democratic voters, the survey found.
Among GOP voters, Texas Gov. Bush now leads Arizona Sen. John McCain by 47% to 26%. Alan Keyes trails distantly with 6%.
Those leads for Gore and Bush are critical because only the votes of party members will be counted in allocating delegates in both the Republican and Democratic contests. A victory by Bush, in particular, could give him a huge advantage in the GOP contest, because California Republicans will award all of the state's 162 delegates--nearly one-sixth of the total needed for the nomination--to the statewide winner.
McCain supporters are hoping to dilute the impact of a potential Bush delegate sweep by overtaking the Texas governor in the nonbinding tally of all voters in California's open primary. That could give McCain ammunition to portray himself as the stronger general election candidate. But even on that front, McCain still lags slightly behind Bush--largely because Gore is proving a potent competitor for the moderate Democrat and independent votes the Arizona senator is targeting, the poll found.
That dynamic could suggest trouble for McCain in other states down the road that allow crossover voting but will also hold Democratic primaries on the same day, such as Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia on Tuesday and Tennessee one week later.
"This is a big change in the playing field for McCain," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Democrats now have a place to go, and in most cases a more logical place to go."
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,053 likely primary voters; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Included in that sample were 540 likely Democratic voters and 409 likely Republican voters; the margin of sampling error for questions relating solely to Republican voters is plus or minus 5 percentage points. For Democrats, it is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A Highly Competitive State 'Beauty Contest'
As the poll demonstrates, California's open primary is proving a complex, multilevel competition. In the nonbinding "beauty contest" portion, all voters will choose among all the candidates, regardless of party.
That contest remains highly competitive, the survey found. Among all likely voters next week, Gore draws 33%, followed by Bush with 26%, McCain with 20%, Bradley at 7%, and Alan Keyes at 4%. With the Bush-McCain contest so close, the result may be determined by which one inspires more turnout among his core supporters.
McCain's campaign aides suggested Tuesday that if they win the popular vote but lose the delegates, they might challenge that result at the convention. Short of that, however, the stakes in the open primary are the chance to claim bragging rights as the stronger general election candidate in California.
In particular, McCain advisors hope that a victory in the California popular vote--combined with wins in the Northeast and portions of the Midwest on March 7--would allow the senator to tout himself to voters in later states as a more electable nominee, even if he loses California's delegate trove.
But in this all-against-all competition, McCain's problem appears as much Gore as Bush. In the earlier primaries, McCain has depended on a huge vote among Democrats and independents to offset Bush's strength among partisan Republicans. In California, Bush is still dominating McCain among Republicans. But McCain is not drawing nearly as many crossover votes as in earlier states, largely because Gore is winning many of those voters. McCain trails Gore among California independents and, while Gore wins 54% of Democrats, McCain is attracting just 1 in 7, the survey found.
That's not an inconsiderable showing in the opposite party: Indeed, the survey finds that McCain runs ahead of Bradley (who draws just 11%) among Democrats. But it's a far cry from the roughly 80% that exit polls showed McCain winning from Democrats voting in Michigan and South Carolina--both of which did not have Democratic primaries on the day of the Republican vote.
In any case, only Republican votes will be counted in the winner-take-all competition for California's GOP delegates. And on that front, McCain faces a huge hurdle: a California electorate that, ideologically, looks much more like South Carolina than Michigan.
In the Times survey, fully 65% of California Republicans likely to vote next week describe themselves as conservative; that's about the same as South Carolina and far more than the 46% of Michigan voters who described themselves as such. (That helped explain why McCain lost in South Carolina and won in Michigan).