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The Recall Campaign

Majority Now Favors Recall; Schwarzenegger Leads Rivals

The Times Poll: Davis loses ground with key voters. For the first time, the actor outpaces all other candidates as he makes double-digit gains among the GOP, independents, women.

October 01, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

A solid majority of likely voters favors removing Gov. Gray Davis from office in the recall election Tuesday, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has surged ahead of his rivals in the race to succeed him, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

By 56% to 42%, likely voters support ousting the Democratic incumbent, a sign that Davis has lost ground in the closing phase of his battle for political survival. Support for Davis has slipped among key parts of his political base -- Democrats, women, moderates and liberals among them -- since the last Times poll in early September found 50% for the recall and 47% against it.

Summing up the view of many voters was poll respondent Gladys Taub, a North Hills Democrat exasperated by the state's giant budget shortfalls.

"Gov. Davis has been doing a terrible job, and I just want to get rid of him," the 62-year-old paralegal, who plans to vote for Schwarzenegger, said in a follow-up interview. "Look at the state our state is in. If I ran my home that way, spending a whole lot more money than I was taking in, I'd wind up bankrupt. I'd wind up on the streets."

Tapping that public anger is Schwarzenegger, whose campaign against "business-as-usual politics in Sacramento" has boosted his popularity as voters weigh alternatives to Davis. The Republican actor is favored by 40% of likely voters, followed by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, with 32%, and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) with 15%.

The shift in voter support toward Schwarzenegger is dramatic: Since the last Times poll, he has made double-digit gains among Republicans, independents, whites, senior citizens, women and other major voting blocs. The early September poll had Bustamante in the lead with 30%, followed by Schwarzenegger at 25% and McClintock at 18%. Bustamante had also led Schwarzenegger in an August poll, 35% to 22%.

Over the last few weeks, several events have occurred that may have caused voters to shift their positions. Schwarzenegger has run millions of dollars in television advertising, and the major candidates held a televised debate that roughly two-thirds of likely voters in the poll said they watched.

Voters who were dissatisfied with Davis -- and with career politicians in general -- seemed to have concluded that Schwarzenegger was a viable option, said Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll. "If you're going to vote for the recall, you have to have somebody in mind to replace the governor," she said. "Before the debate, there was no one that they felt they could vote for."

Schwarzenegger's emergence as front-runner in the replacement race comes as he and Davis are each framing the election -- with growing acrimony -- as a two-man contest.

Each is running TV spots attacking the other. Schwarzenegger accuses Davis of mismanagement and calls on voters to dump him. Davis defends his stewardship of California and tries to raise doubts about Schwarzenegger's fitness for public office.

A key part of Davis' strategy is to persuade recall supporters to switch their votes from yes to no for fear of a Schwarzenegger victory. The poll shows the narrow reach of that approach: 6% of recall backers said they might switch their vote if it looked like Schwarzenegger would win.

Angela Rodriguez, 29, a Democrat and a technology company manager from Bakersfield, is one of them. She plans to vote for Bustamante, but prefers Davis to Schwarzenegger. So if it looks like the Republican will win, she will switch her vote on the recall.

"He's a good actor, but that's not good enough," she said. Davis, she added, "can't screw up anything more than he's already screwed it up."

Overall, the poll found that the central theme of Schwarzenegger's candidacy had struck a chord with likely voters: Rather than finding him frightening, they see him as the candidate most apt to curb the influence of special interests in Sacramento.

"I look at him as maybe like a Kennedy, where he really wants to do something good, because he's not in it for the money," said Jim Rego, 58, a Castro Valley independent who owns a gas station outside Oakland.

Rego faults Davis for the state budget mess and sees Schwarzenegger as "a guy who can run a business, balance the books." He typically votes for Democrats; Schwarzenegger will be the first exception since Rego went for Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race.

"I was disgusted with the way the country was going then; we're worse off now than we were then," he said.

Although Schwarzenegger has accepted campaign money from donors with business before the governor's office -- despite a pledge not to do so -- most likely voters say that would make no difference in whether they would vote for him.

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