Many likely voters do harbor reservations about the former champion bodybuilder. Only 8% think Schwarzenegger has the best experience for the job of governor, well behind Davis, McClintock and Bustamante. Also, only 8% believe that Schwarzenegger seemed more knowledgeable than his opponents in last week's debate in Sacramento.
But that seemed to matter less than other qualities. A broad swath of voters see in Schwarzenegger an aptitude they have found lacking in Davis since the 2001 energy crisis: leadership. On the question of who would be a strong leader, Schwarzenegger is ahead with 36%, followed by McClintock at 21%, Davis at 18% and Bustamante at 16%.
"He's not going to be pushed around by people," said nurse practitioner Karen Keller, 62, a Republican from Lakewood. Since the last Times poll, a wave of independent voters has shifted toward Schwarzenegger, moving away from both Bustamante and, more decisively, McClintock.
While Schwarzenegger's support among independents has rocketed from 14% to 44%, McClintock's has plunged from 28% to 8%. Bustamante's has dropped slightly, from 24% to 21%. Bustamante made up for that loss by gaining some support among Democrats.
The Times Poll, supervised by Pinkus, interviewed 1,982 adults statewide Sept. 25-29. Among them were 1,496 registered voters, including 815 deemed likely to vote in the recall election. The margin of sampling error among likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample; it is larger for subgroups.
For Davis, a key challenge in the final days of the race is to bolster support among Democrats. Despite his aggressive efforts to woo union members, Latinos and other traditional blocs of the party, the survey found 27% of Democrats supporting the recall, up from 19% in the last poll.
Among liberal Democrats, support for the recall grew from 1-in-10 to 2-in-10. Among moderate Democrats, support climbed from 30% early last month to 35%. Union members, a key to Davis' success in prior elections, also tilted further in favor of the recall, from 51% in the last poll to 54% in the most recent.
Other signs of trouble for Davis: 54% of women back the recall; early last month, 54% of women opposed it. Support for the recall also grew among the elderly, who typically turn out to vote in large numbers. While voters 65 and older were evenly split on the recall in the last poll, they now favor it, 54% to 46%. Even Los Angeles County voters, crucial to the success of any Democrat in a statewide election, have swung in favor of the recall, 53% to 46%. Early last month, they opposed it, 58% to 38%.
Support for the recall also remains overwhelming among Republicans and conservatives: nearly nine in 10 of each favor the governor's ouster. Among whites -- more than two-thirds of the electorate -- 62% favor the recall.
"I just pray that guy gets thrown out on his ear, because he is the kiss of death for this state, there is no question," said former lumber company owner Tom Skuse, 50, a Rancho Cucamonga Republican.
Among Skuse's biggest complaints is the governor's approval of a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
"We're going to hand out licenses to people who can't even speak English," he said. "Come on. You don't think that was a vote-buying deal?"
Davis resisted signing the measure last year, citing public-safety concerns. But after approving it this year he has used it as the cornerstone of his appeals to Latino voters, most recently in a Spanish-language ad he started running Tuesday.
Yet the poll suggests that the tactic may have backfired.
Among likely voters, more than three out of five oppose the driver's license bill. Moreover, 43% of likely voters say a candidate's support for it would make them less likely to vote for that person, although 41% say it would make no difference.
Latinos are now split on the recall, 49% for it and 48% against, which represents a slight movement on behalf of the governor.
Schwarzenegger, who opposes the driver's license measure, has sought to use the issue against Davis, which may account for a slight slide among the Republican's Latino support -- to roughly one in four voters. McClintock has also spoken out against the measure. Bustamante supports it.
With the license controversy raging, immigration has risen to be the fourth-most important problem that likely voters say the governor should address. First is the budget; second, the economy; and third, education.
"I'm tired of subsidizing illegals," said Burbank Democrat Denise Cochran, 43, an acting teacher who supports the recall and sees the driver's license law as "incredibly dangerous."
"I'm paying through the nose," she said. "I'm tired of it. All these schools we're building are because the illegals have their children here. I want their children to be educated, but somebody has to pay these bills."