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Jerry Brown's lead doubles in a month; little change in Senate race

Meg Whitman's handling of housekeeper scandal and record-breaking spending have cost her support among women, Latinos and independents. Barbara Boxer maintains an 8-point lead over Carly Fiorina.

October 24, 2010|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

Defections from Meg Whitman's ranks on the part of women, Latinos and nonpartisan voters have fueled a surge by Jerry Brown in the race for governor, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll.

The shift comes after a tumultuous month for the Republican candidate that has led some voters to question her veracity and her handling of accusations by an illegal immigrant housekeeper.

Brown, the Democratic attorney general and former governor, led Whitman 52% to 39% among likely voters, the poll found. His advantage has more than doubled since a Times/USC poll in September.

The abrupt movement in the race for governor came as Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer held onto her 8-point margin over Republican Carly Fiorina in the U.S. Senate contest. Boxer's 50% to 42% lead was statistically unchanged from September's 51% to 43% edge.

For both Democrats, the month between the two polls found the party's strongest supporters rallying to the candidates' sides: liberals, women and Latinos either solidified or expanded their backing for Brown and Boxer. Nonpartisan voters, whom Republicans had counted on to overcome the Democratic advantage in voter registration, moved away from the two Republican candidates, and moderate voters also tilted toward the Democrats.

Paula Bennett, a schoolteacher in the Sacramento-area town of Acampo, said she was drawn to Brown in part by the blizzard of cash Whitman has thrown at the race.

"I like the little guy; he didn't have the money behind him like she did," she said in a follow-up interview, adding that she sided with Brown for the same reason that she favors a mom-and-pop establishment over a retail behemoth.

"We don't shop at Walmart. We shop at the local store. He just seemed like more of a down-home candidate."

Although she is Republican, Bennett is also siding with Boxer. She said she was offended by both Whitman's and Fiorina's infusions of personal cash into their races.

"That message that they're sending to people is a very bad choice," she said. "We're looking to people to act their values rather than throw money at causes. People are holding their money really closely and those candidates are really splurging."

Most of the nation has seen pronounced enthusiasm by Republican voters as the midterm elections approach. In California, however, Democrats have gained strength and GOP motivation has ebbed slightly in the last month, the poll showed. The current standings represent a reassertion of a more typical profile for the state after an election year convulsed by a foundering economy, widespread discontent about the future and record-breaking spending by Whitman, who has dropped more than $141 million of her own money into her campaign.

The poll was conducted for The Los Angeles Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences from Oct. 13 to 20 by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. It included a random sample of 1,501 California voters, including 922 likely voters. Results for likely voters have a margin of sampling error of 3.2 points in either direction, with a larger margin for subgroups.

The survey was taken as the two gubernatorial candidates pummeled each other over the state's airwaves and flooded telephone lines and mailboxes with entreaties for the election — now nine days away. And it came at the close of a particularly difficult period in the race for Whitman.

A turning point appears to have been the Sept. 29 announcement by her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, that she had been employed by the former EBay chief for nine years, a period during which she said Whitman became aware of her illegal status. Whitman countered that she had not known of Diaz Santillan's status until shortly before firing her in 2009, and she released copies of falsified documents presented to her by Diaz Santillan.

Diaz Santillan, accompanied by attorney Gloria Allred in a series of sob-wracked news conferences, displayed a copy of a 2003 government document sent to Whitman and her husband that could have alerted them that their employee was using a false Social Security number.

The subsequent days of controversy upended Whitman's carefully nuanced position on illegal immigration and whipsawed her between voters who thought she was too easy on Diaz Santillan and those who thought the housekeeper deserved better than banishment. Whitman slipped among both groups in the new poll.

Among likely Latino voters, support for Brown grew from a 20-point lead in September to a 34-point advantage in the new survey. His lead among women voters expanded from 9 points to 21 points. Among nonpartisan voters, who in California register as "decline to state" and tend to recoil from tough stances against illegal immigrants, Brown's lead over Whitman grew from 6 points to 37 points.

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