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Whitman expands primary lead; Fiorina pulls out from the pack

LOS ANGELES TIMES/USC POLL

In governor's race Whitman is 24 points ahead of Steve Poizner, 6 points behind Jerry Brown. GOP Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina has clear lead but moderate Tom Campbell fared best against Barbara Boxer.

May 30, 2010|Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

After plummeting in recent polls, Republican Meg Whitman has regained her commanding lead in the race for governor over her primary opponent Steve Poizner, but their contentious assaults have helped reverse the general election edge she once held over Democrat Jerry Brown, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll has found.

Whitman leads Poizner 53% to 29%, with less than two weeks to go before the June 8 primary, the poll found. But head to head against Brown, she trails 44% to 38%.

The former EBay chief executive, making her first bid for public office, led by 40 points in the last Times/USC survey in March. She then saw her popularity fall under a withering ad bombardment from Poizner, who has accused her of being too liberal on illegal immigration, struck at her failure to vote for much of her adult life and criticized her association with controversial investment bank Goldman Sachs. Polls earlier in May showed her with only a narrow lead. But she has rebounded thanks, in part, to a renewed ad barrage of her own.

In the primary's other highlight, the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Carly Fiorina has vaulted into a clear lead over her main primary opponent Tom Campbell, 38% to 23%. In third was Chuck DeVore at 16%. In March, Campbell had a narrow lead over Fiorina.

Although behind in the primary race, Campbell was the only Republican beating Democrat Barbara Boxer in a general election matchup, 45% to 38%. Boxer, a three-term incumbent whom the poll showed is vulnerable, was defeating Fiorina by 6 points and DeVore by 10.

The two races are being played out against a backdrop of intense voter upset, both nationally and in California. Only 7% of Californians told pollsters that the state was on the right track. Eighty-two percent said it was headed in the wrong direction.

"The state is so screwed up … I'm not sure it makes much difference who you vote for," J.B. Cockrell, a Republican from Montara in San Mateo County, said in a follow-up interview.

The poll, a joint effort by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, underscored the continuing power of television in California's political races. Whitman's lead in March drew on people who had seen her ubiquitous television ads; since then Poizner gained ground as he extended his television campaign. Fiorina's current lead came after she started airing ads; her two opponents have had far smaller television profiles.

"General-election campaigns for these offices still attract a decent amount of news coverage, but these present campaigns are a very stark reminder that in a statewide primary, it's all about the TV ads," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former GOP consultant.

The survey was conducted by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. Pollsters questioned 1,506 registered voters from May 19 to 26. The margin of sampling error was 2.6 points in either direction for the overall sample, with a slightly larger margin of error for partial groups.

Although Whitman has regained a clear lead in the primary race, that achievement could be costly in the general election ahead. "She was forced to respond and define herself as a conservative, probably more clearly than she would have wanted to otherwise," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "It's pretty clear there's a general election price to pay."

More people knew of her in May than in March, yet Whitman's favorability rating has stalled with less than a third of voters saying they think well of her. Those thinking poorly of her rose from 23% to 37%. At the same time, Poizner's unfavorability rose from 23% to 40%.

"His advertising did allow him to be competitive, but she reinvigorated her campaign … and was able to re-control the agenda," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint.

Whitman was leading Poizner in most demographic categories, although she weakened substantially among some groups. But she continued to do well on economic issues, the chief concern of voters in a state rocked by a soaring budget deficit and 12.6% unemployment.

Voters planning to participate in the Republican primary were asked which of the two GOP candidates would be better at creating jobs and fixing the economy: Whitman beat Poizner 55% to 16%. By a margin of 53% to 16%, voters deemed her better suited to rein in government spending. They picked her over Poizner, 48% to 20%, when it came to restraining tax hikes.

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