State Controller Steve Westly has taken a double-digit lead over Treasurer Phil Angelides in the Democratic contest for governor, but nearly half of likely voters in the June 6 primary are undecided, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.
The race remains highly volatile: More than half of those who support Westly or Angelides say they could change their minds.
With both still unfamiliar to many Californians, Westly has gained an edge in part by outspending Angelides on biographical television ads. But neither man has started airing negative commercials, which could yet scramble the dynamics of the race. Voting by mail starts in nine days.
For now, Westly leads Angelides among likely Democratic primary voters, 33% to 20%, with 45% undecided.
On the Republican side, the poll found signs of a rebound for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom the Democratic nominee will face in November. Schwarzenegger's popularity has risen across a broad spectrum of voter groups since the last Times poll in October, when he was pushing a conservative ballot agenda roundly defeated weeks later.
Now, 44% of California's registered voters approve of Schwarzenegger's job performance, up from 37% in October. But his recovery is shaky: 53% still give him negative job ratings.
More troublesome for the governor: 48% say they will definitely or probably not vote for him in November. Just 31% say they will definitely or probably support his reelection.
Another difficulty for the incumbent is the surly mood of California voters. The poll found that 61% of them see the state as seriously on the wrong track, their grimmest outlook since they ousted Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall.
At the top of voters' minds is illegal immigration, the topic of a raging congressional debate that has sparked protests and counter-protests across the nation. For the first time in more than a decade, immigration has surpassed education as the top concern of California voters. Just behind those two topics is the soaring price of gasoline.
Those issues appear to have made more of an impact than the other races on the ballot, shrouded by their absence thus far from the airwaves. The best known of the rest of the candidates, former Gov. Jerry Brown, was leading by better than 2 to 1 over Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo in the Democratic race for attorney general.
With the election a little more than five weeks away, voters are paying scant attention to the Democratic primary for governor. Barely a third of likely Democratic primary voters say they are very interested.
"It's just too early for me to pay attention," poll respondent Jana Grover, a retired Oakland teacher, said in a follow-up interview. "I have to wait until it gets down to the wire."
Although many have no opinion of the two Democrats, Westly already leads Angelides among every major group of likely voters in the primary, including men, women, Latinos and residents of all California regions.
The controller runs ahead even among groups targeted by Angelides, such as liberals and union members -- a sobering turn given Angelides' endorsement by organized labor. Likely voters in the Democratic primary say Westly would do a better job than Angelides on schools, the economy, the state budget and the environment.
Overall, Westly has left a favorable impression on 58% of likely voters in the primary; Angelides, 52%.
Westly "comes across as very personable," said Nikole Wilson-Ripsom, 35, an Oakland nonprofit organization administrator who likes the candidate's background as a former dot-com businessman and Stanford University instructor.
Suzanne Lewis, 55, a Democrat who lives in Valley Village, is leaning toward Angelides, partly because of his vow to reduce college tuition. "It's a good start," said Lewis, a publicist. "We have to think about the future."
For now, in the absence of attack ads, just a sliver of Democrats hold unfavorable opinions of either candidate. Lewis, for example, frowned on Westly's alliance with Schwarzenegger in a 2004 bond campaign.
And Jared Ikeda, 65, a retired Salinas planning consultant, dislikes Angelides' record as a developer. "I'm not particularly fond of sprawl," Ikeda said.
Beyond personal background, a key factor in the Democratic contest is which candidate has the best shot of beating Schwarzenegger. By 37% to 18%, likely voters in the Democratic primary see Westly as more apt than Angelides to oust the governor.
Schwarzenegger's fate could indeed hinge partly on who wins the Democratic nomination, the poll suggests. In a hypothetical match-up among registered voters, Westly would unseat the governor, 48% to 39%, if the general election were held today, while Angelides and Schwarzenegger would be tied at 43% apiece.
For Schwarzenegger, prospects for a second term are less bleak than they seemed in the fall. He has strengthened his base of Republicans, conservatives, men, whites and residents of inland counties. Among senior citizens, his job approval score leaped from 36% to 56%.