Phil Angelides has erased rival Steve Westly's lead in the Democratic primary contest for governor, making the race a tossup as the two dash into the final 10 days of the campaign, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.
The lack of a clear front-runner ensures a fiercely competitive fight in the closing phase of a match already notable for scathing character attacks.
If the June 6 election were held today, likely Democratic primary voters would favor Angelides over Westly, 37% to 34%. That is a statistical tie, given the poll's margin of sampling error: plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The poll found 28% of likely voters undecided, an unusually large proportion at this late stage of the campaign.
Despite the close margin and huge undecided bloc, the poll found stagnation for Westly, the state controller, and strong momentum for Angelides, the state treasurer.
In a Times survey last month, Westly led Angelides, 33% to 20%. This time, Westly has hardly budged, while Angelides has leapt 17 points, thanks largely to surging support among liberals and union members, two of the party's biggest constituencies.
But public opinion on both men is highly unstable. Both were barely known to most voters until recent weeks. Neither candidate has a strong base of support; 41% of likely voters who support Westly or Angelides might change their minds. And a raging battle of negative TV commercials still could shift public perceptions significantly.
Angelides' ads slamming Westly for breaking his vow not to run negative spots have led poll respondent Phyllis Schissel to question Westly's integrity. "If he breaks that promise, what else is he saying he's going to do that he's not going to do?" the Democrat, a school speech pathologist, said in a follow-up interview.
Westly ads nudged Whittier housewife Beatrice McLaren in the opposite direction. "I was leaning toward Angelides, but I'm not leaning that way anymore," said McLaren, 85, a Democrat alarmed by a Westly ad saying Angelides took campaign money from oil companies.
Despite the surge by Angelides, likely voters in the Democratic primary still say, when asked to compare the two, that Westly has a better chance of ousting Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.
And, separately, the poll also found Westly performing stronger than Angelides in hypothetical November contests against Schwarzenegger.
If the election were held today, registered voters would prefer Westly over Schwarzenegger, 50% to 40%. Angelides was virtually tied with the governor, 46% to Schwarzenegger's 45%.
"Anybody but Schwarzenegger," said Westly supporter Lauren Hart, 45, a Pleasanton computer-network administrator. "Get him out."
The tightening of the Democratic race is partly a matter of changed circumstances. When polls last month found Westly with a solid lead, he was promoting himself in television ads during a three-week period when Angelides -- working on a tighter budget -- was not on the air.
Now, however, voters have been exposed for several weeks to a two-man battle of television advertising, the main tool for candidates to communicate with California voters. Besides Angelides' own ads, his business partner, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, has promoted him in a multimillion-dollar independent effort.
A month ago, "you were looking at a very unfocused electorate that only saw Westly's ads every day, saying how wonderful he is," and now it is "10 days out, where the campaign's gotten more intense," Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus said.
At this point, the poll found, neither Democrat has established an edge in some key areas. They score roughly the same on the environment. And most likely voters in the primary view both as honest or trustworthy, despite the attack ads.
Angelides has pulled ahead on the question of which Democrat would do the best job on public education, long the top issue for Democrats. But Westly has maintained his lead on the economy and state budget.
In the primary, Westly has lost the lead he held last month among a broad swath of likely Democratic primary voters. (Independent voters will be allowed to cast a ballot in major party primaries this year.) Most significant, liberals and union members have tilted toward Angelides, the favored candidate of the party establishment and organized labor.
Retired electrical contractor John W. Albright of Fresno, who has just begun to evaluate the two Democrats, said the union mail he had received recommending Angelides would influence his vote. The union "is really pushing" Angelides, he said.
Although liberals constitute 52% of likely Democratic primary voters, Westly has maintained his lead among those who do not describe themselves as liberal, according to the poll.
Despite the acrimony, a strong majority still views both Westly and Angelides favorably. But among all registered voters, Westly has built a slightly more positive image.