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California and the West | THE TIMES POLL

Feinstein Has Big Lead Over GOP Foes

Likely voters also strongly back initiatives allowing expanded gambling on Indian lands and barring same-sex marriage.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, borne by a rising tide of voter appreciation of her terms in office, holds an imposing lead over her Republican opponents as California's primary nears, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Californians also strongly support ballot initiatives that would allow expanded gambling on Native American lands and would restrict marriages to those between men and women, the poll found. By a narrower margin, likely voters supported a measure that would loosen the requirements for passage of local school bonds.

Against three Republicans, the most popular of whom was Silicon Valley Rep. Tom Campbell, Feinstein was the choice of more than half of likely voters surveyed--51%--including 1 in 5 Republicans likely to cast ballots March 7. Campbell was favored by 19%, compared with 3% each for his GOP rivals, state Sen. Ray Haynes of Riverside and San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn.

The findings underscored something obvious to Californians: The contest has yet to ignite sparks among the state's 14 million registered voters. That was particularly true among Republicans. Fully 34% of likely GOP voters said they did not know whom they would vote for on election day, a number statistically equal to the 35% who sided with Campbell. Twenty percent of Republicans favored Feinstein, 6% Horn and 5% Haynes.

Overall, the poll illustrated a generally content California, with little desire among voters to shake things up.

"The national economy is doing well, their state is doing well, their own finances are doing well. What is there to change?" said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

The Times Poll surveyed 1,053 likely voters, including 540 Democrats and 409 Republicans, from Feb. 23 to 28. The margin of error is 3 points in either direction for likely voters, 4 points among Democrats and 5 points among Republicans.

Under terms of California's blanket primary, voters of any political stripe will be able to vote for politicians from any party Tuesday. In the presidential contest, party delegates will be awarded based only on the votes of party members; in the Senate contest all votes count, and the winning candidate from each party will advance to the general election in November.

Feinstein has no significant in-party competition for the Democratic nomination, and the poll found her drawing the support of 77% of likely party voters. Fourteen percent said they were unsure whom to vote for and another 7% favored Campbell.

Feinstein's backers, moreover, were vigorous: About 3 of 4 said they were "certain" to vote for her, a determination made by only half of Campbell's supporters.

To some extent, Campbell suffered because of the campaign's low profile, as queries about the candidates' ideologies showed.

When asked if Feinstein was more liberal or more conservative than they, or if she shared their views, 48% of likely voters said she was more liberal, 34% said she shared their views and 11% said she was more conservative. Only 7% were not sure where she stood.

Campbell, in contrast, was a relative unknown. More than half of likely voters--54%--said they did not know enough about him to judge where he stands on the issues. Of those who did, 11% said he was more liberal, 16% said he shared their views and 18% cast him as more conservative. He was less known outside the Bay Area, which he has twice represented in Congress.

While the number of voters who found Feinstein's views more liberal than their own was high, the poll suggested that even in that group, success for Campbell may be hard to find. Twenty-three percent of those who judged themselves more conservative than Feinstein still planned to vote for her; only 35% of them were committed to Campbell.

Feinstein benefited from a substantial jump in her job approval rating, which has leaped to 60% among registered voters from 54% the last time it was measured, in June. Only a quarter of registered voters said they disapproved of how she is handling her job, the lowest that figure has been since the first two years of her tenure, 1992-94.

The state's senior senator was not the only political institution to benefit from a boost in voter morale. More than two-thirds of registered voters approved of the way Democratic Gov. Gray Davis is handling his job, up from 54% last June. Even 55% of registered Republicans approved of Davis' governorship. The Legislature won the backing of a striking 54% of registered voters, the highest ranking since the Times Poll began assessing it in 1983. The state's junior senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, found favor with nearly half of the registered voters polled, about the same as last June.

Though Feinstein's results may have been exaggerated by the lopsided nature of her support, she won the backing of nearly all demographic groups except for Republicans and those describing themselves as very conservative.

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