Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas appears to be neck and neck with veteran prosecutor Wallace Wade in his bid for reelection, but a majority of voters still don't know which way they'll vote in the March 5 election, a poll conducted for The Times found.
In a survey of 582 likely voters, Rackauckas took 20% of the vote to Wade's 19%, with the remaining voters undecided, according to the Baldassare Associates poll, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
"It's still anybody's race," said Cheryl Katz, the poll's director. "It could go either way."
Wade, who received 41% of the vote in a 1998 loss to Rackauckas, said the poll results are encouraging. No challenger has defeated an incumbent district attorney in Orange County in more than five decades.
"It's great news," Wade said. "The knock has always been that you can't beat an incumbent. Clearly, he has not established a good reputation."
Rackauckas supporters also found the results encouraging. They predicted that the majority of undecided voters will go with the incumbent, particularly because crime has declined during his term.
"I'm not surprised by the numbers," said Michael Schroeder, the former state Republican Party leader who is managing Rackauckas' campaign. "Wally Wade is deluding himself if he believes that trailing even narrowly at this point is good news."
The Times poll was conducted Feb. 14 through 18, before a blitz of campaign mailers hit Orange County homes. It found that among likely voters, 32% approve of Rackauckas' job performance, while 19% disapprove and nearly half don't have an opinion.
Wade has made Rackauckas' ethics a central theme of his campaign, questioning the first-term district attorney's handling of several cases involving political contributors. But the issue has not resonated among voters, the poll found. Just 7% of voters rated Rackauckas' ethics as poor, while 29% thought the district attorney has done a good or excellent job of maintaining a high ethical standard in office, the poll found.
Al Jimenez, a San Juan Capistrano businessman who responded to the poll, said he is familiar with the criticism of Rackauckas but blames it on disgruntled workers. He said he'll vote for the incumbent.
"Tony started out trying to clean house. That element thought they owned the department," Jimenez said. "If he didn't have friction, he's not doing his job."
Wade has said that if voters research the issues, he's confident they'll support him. He's won the support of the deputy prosecutors' association as well as several Orange County police unions.
But even those who said they'll vote for Wade had a hard time identifying issues that led them to stray from the incumbent.
"I know [Rackauckas] has had a lot of conflict down there," said Bill Regniak, 42, a salesman from La Habra. "That's why I was going to vote for the other gentleman. It seems everything he does is a conflict of interest.... I can't specifically name any."
Wade's backers hoped he would win support from south Orange County voters expected to favor Measure W, which would zone the closed El Toro Marine base for a regional park instead of an airport. Wade also hoped to get political mileage out of Rackauckas' close link to George L. Argyros, the wealthy developer who is a leading advocate for an El Toro airport. .
The poll found that voters who oppose an airport favor Rackauckas by the same margin as the rest of the population.
With nine days until the election, Wade supporters said they expect news of the tie to energize their campaign.
"That this is neck and neck is consistent with what I've been hearing in the community," said Christopher Evans, a Wade supporter and former top assistant to Rackauckas. "This county has a long tradition of keeping political corruption in check, and there's been a lot of bad news coming out of the district attorney's office for three years. That doesn't play well here."