California voters are almost evenly split on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante retains a narrow lead over Arnold Schwarzenegger in the tightening race for a successor, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
Likely voters in the Oct. 7 election support the ouster of Davis by 50% to 47%, with just 3% undecided, the poll found. The result, a statistical tossup, is virtually unchanged from an August Times poll.
The Democratic governor remains highly unpopular, but by at least one measure, his standing has improved: 63% of likely voters disapprove of his job performance, down from 72% in last month's poll.
More volatile than the referendum on Davis is the contest for a replacement. Bustamante, the only well-known Democrat in the race, leads with 30%, followed by two Republicans: Schwarzenegger with 25% and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks with 18%,
McClintock, a conservative under pressure from Schwarzenegger loyalists to drop out of the race, has gained ground since August, when he drew support from 12% of likely voters. Schwarzenegger's support ticked upward three percentage points, from 22%. Bustamante dropped five points. All of the shifts, however, are near or within the poll's margin of sampling error.
As the election approaches, many Republicans have grown fearful that McClintock and Schwarzenegger will divide their party's vote, handing the election to Bustamante and dashing their hopes of regaining power in a state dominated by Democrats.
Still, the poll found troubles emerging for Bustamante as voters learn more about him. His unfavorable rating surged from 29% in the August poll to 50% in the new one. Rivals have been hammering Bustamante for taking more than $3 million in campaign money from Indian tribes that run casinos -- and for refusing to distance himself from a Latino student group that critics view as radical.
Poll respondent Wanda Starman, 65, a Democrat who lives in Poway, outside San Diego, said in a follow-up interview that Bustamante's campaign fund-raising had soured her on the lieutenant governor.
"He's just going to do what it takes to get there, and I don't think ethics has a lot to do with it," said Starman, who prefers political commentator Arianna Huffington as a Davis successor.
Huffington, a former Republican who is running to Bustamante's left, is the favorite of 3% of likely voters, followed by Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo with 2%. Neither has substantially altered their standing in recent weeks. Peter V. Ueberroth, the Republican businessman who abandoned his campaign Tuesday in the middle of the survey, drew support from 8% of likely voters.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling Director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 2,249 adults statewide Sept. 6-10. Among them were 1,553 registered voters, including 922 deemed likely to vote in the recall election. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three points among likely voters.
Though predicting who will turn out to vote is an imprecise science, the unprecedented nature of the recall makes it even more difficult this time. The sheer number of voters who will cast ballots, however, appeared at this point not to determine the outcome: The poll found the race was up in the air in scenarios projecting anywhere from a low to a high turnout.
Among the poll's most striking findings was the return of immigration as an issue that voters see as important for the governor to address. The state's fiscal troubles remain the top issue, followed by education and the economy. Immigration -- and a new law signed by Davis to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- is fourth, listed as important by one in six voters.
Davis and Bustamante have used their support of the driver's license law to appeal to Latinos; Schwarzenegger and McClintock have called it a threat to public safety.
Ray Bright, 82, a retired Republican aerospace mechanic from Buena Park, said Schwarzenegger's stand against the measure was one of the key reasons he is backing the actor for governor.
"I'm not opposed to Mexicans, but the ones who come here illegally, there's too many of them here," Bright said.
Overall, the poll found California's electorate in a foul mood. With the state's economy stalled since the dot-com bust of 2000, nearly three out of four likely voters say things in California are seriously off on the wrong track.
Though the pessimism is largely bipartisan, voters split sharply along party lines when it came to the recall, with 83% of Republicans backing the ouster of Davis and 79% of Democrats against it. Independents are virtually split on the recall of Davis, but their enthusiasm has waned since August, when nearly two out of three of them supported it.