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THE TIMES POLL

Hahn Leads but Soboroff, Villaraigosa Narrow Gap

April 03, 2001|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former legislator Antonio Villaraigosa and real estate broker Steve Soboroff have moved into contention in the race for mayor of Los Angeles, joining City Atty. James K. Hahn as the candidates most likely to secure one of the two positions in a runoff election, a Los Angeles Times poll has found.

The three candidates have pulled ahead of three other well-known challengers and the rest of the pack running for mayor, with the narrow margins between the three leaders promising a remarkably close contest in the election, which will be held one week from today.

Though Hahn still holds a narrow lead with 24% of likely voters, his support remains at a standstill since a Times poll a month ago. Villaraigosa and Soboroff, meanwhile, have gained ground on the city attorney. The poll found that Villaraigosa has the backing of 20% of likely voters and Soboroff 18%--both up from 12% a month ago.

The standings put the top three all well within striking range of one another--and within the poll's margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

"It looks like it's down to a horse race between these three," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll. "Villaraigosa and Soboroff have the momentum over Hahn, who is looking really stagnant. But it could be any two of these three in the runoff."

The significant tightening of the race has been evident in the campaign for several days, as the once-restrained Hahn has pummeled Villaraigosa--criticizing the onetime speaker of the state Assembly for everything from the state electricity crisis to writing a letter on behalf of a convicted cocaine trafficker. Villaraigosa hit back at Hahn last week for the city attorney's failure to do more to rein in police abuse.

The Republican Party has sent mailers on Soboroff's behalf, taking aim at his principal rivals in the mayoral campaign, including Hahn and Villaraigosa.

The candidates' standings with voters have solidified markedly since a month ago, when nearly a quarter of voters were undecided and many others were unsure of their choices. Now 15% of voters say they haven't made up their minds, and nearly seven in 10 of those who have picked a candidate said they are certain of their vote.

Each of the candidates also brings a strong core group of constituents to his campaign: Hahn enjoys the strong support of African American voters; Soboroff's backing is overwhelmingly white; and Villaraigosa has solid backing among Latinos and Jews.

Those findings and other dynamics appear to make three other candidates--City Councilman Joel Wachs, at 11%, state Controller Kathleen Connell at 6% and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) at 6%--longshots to find enough new supporters to make it into the June 5 runoff. All three have remained stagnant or fallen off from their already marginal showings of a month ago.

Aggressive Fund-Raising

In the most dynamic and closely fought mayoral contest in a generation, money has proved to be the lifeblood of the top candidates.

Hahn has raised the most money from campaign contributors and also benefits from several unions, which are contacting their members for him. Soboroff leads the overall financial derby, in large measure because he has injected $687,000 of his own money into the race. He also benefits from the California Republican Party's multiple mailers. And Villaraigosa ranks just behind those two in fund-raising but gets a massive boost--perhaps $1.5 million worth of mailers, phone banks and organizers--from the state Democratic Party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Those considerable advantages have helped the three front-runners piece together widely varying coalitions.

Hahn does best where his family has constructed an enduring political legacy: among African American voters in South Los Angeles. The city attorney also takes the biggest chunk of moderate voters.

The 63% of black voters supporting Hahn's candidacy represent the closest thing to a lock on a single voter group in a race, where allegiances are widely diffused among the top contenders. With four terms at City Hall as city attorney, Hahn is one of the most recognized candidates in the field and enjoys the strongest approval rating; 67% of those polled have a favorable impression of him.

But despite Hahn's five weeks of advertising about his record in office, many supporters continue to back him because he is the son of the late county supervisor, Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Los Angeles for 40 years.

"Kenneth Hahn was very good and helped the community out a whole lot," poll respondent Nette Williams, a 37-year-old resident of South Los Angeles, said in a follow-up interview. "He had a multipurpose building here that provided a lot of services to the low-income community here. I am hoping the son will be a lot like the father."

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