A week before California's Democratic presidential primary, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry leads North Carolina Sen. John Edwards by a lopsided 56% to 24% among the state's likely voters in the race, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
The survey also found that, while many Californians are still unaware of them, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's two budget measures on the March 2 ballot are winning a majority, thanks partly to his aggressive campaign for voter approval.
One of them, Proposition 57, which would authorize up to $15 billion in bonds to help balance the state budget, has the support of 51% of voters with 34% opposed -- once the measure was explained to them. The other, Proposition 58, which would require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget, has a broader 58%-to-23% lead.
But two other ballot measures were in trouble, the poll found. Proposition 55, a $12-billion school bond, is ahead narrowly -- 49% to 41%. Proposition 56 -- a proposal to lower the Legislature's vote threshold for passing a budget, in effect abolishing the Republican minority's power to block tax hikes -- is losing 39% to 46%. On all of the propositions, a substantial chunk of the electorate was still undecided even after being told about the measures.
Beyond next week's election, the survey found California to be decidedly unfriendly territory for President Bush in November. Just over half of California voters disapprove of his job performance. In potential matchups, Kerry and Edwards each finish well ahead of the Republican president -- in Kerry's case by a solid 13 points.
Indeed, the depth of opposition to Bush among Democrats, who dominate California elections, is a key factor fueling Kerry's strength in the primary, the poll found. Among likely Democratic primary voters, 56% say it was more important to choose a candidate who could drive Bush from office than one who agrees with them.
"He's one of the worst presidents we've had in 150 years," Democratic poll respondent Robert Drescher of Santa Clarita said in a follow-up interview.
The 44-year-old lawyer favors Kerry for the same reason he preferred Wesley Clark before the retired general dropped out of the race: He sees him as having the best shot at defeating Bush.
Following the pattern set in other states, Kerry's support in the primary cuts across a broad range of demographic groups. He wins majorities of men, women, liberals, moderates, Latinos, union members and senior citizens, among others.
Even primary voters who cite the economy or jobs as their No. 1 issue -- a group that has tilted toward Edwards in other states -- prefer Kerry to his main rival, 69% to 26%, the poll found.
Still, underscoring the volatility of the already tumultuous Democratic race, a full third of the voters who favor a candidate say they might abandon him and shift to another by election day.
Edwards supporter Ed Estin, 68, a retired Napa probation officer, said his choice was "not firm at all." Estin said he is drawn by the Southern background and youthfulness of Edwards, who is 50. And he questions Kerry's effectiveness after nearly 20 years in the Senate. But he said he was still "looking for more information."
"I'm not totally supportive of Edwards; I'm just less supportive of Kerry," Estin said.
California is one of 10 states holding contests March 2, when more than half of the 2,159 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination will be awarded in contests from coast to coast.
With more hard-fought races that day in New York, Ohio, Georgia and other states, California has received scant attention so far from the leading candidates, apart from quick visits to tap its vast network of campaign donors.
But California's 370 delegates are the biggest prize of the nomination battle. Edwards' surprisingly strong second-place finish last week in the Wisconsin primary set the stage for a competitive race, a rarity in modern California, but Kerry's 32-point lead in the Times poll calls that into doubt.
In Los Angeles on Thursday, Kerry, Edwards and two other candidates, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, will square off at USC in a debate sponsored by The Times and CNN. The poll found Kucinich favored by 4% of likely primary voters, and Sharpton, 1%.
The survey, supervised by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,521 registered California voters from Feb. 18 to 22, including 1,005 likely to vote in the March 2 election. Among them were 560 deemed likely to vote in the Democratic primary, which is open to independents. The margin of sampling error for registered voters and all likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For likely Democratic primary voters, it is 4 points.