Democrat Jerry Brown has moved into a narrow lead over Republican Meg Whitman in their fractious contest for governor, while his party colleague Barbara Boxer has opened a wider margin over GOP nominee Carly Fiorina in the race for U.S. Senate, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll has found.
The Democratic candidates were benefiting from their party's dominance in California and the continued popularity here of President Obama, who has retained most of his strength in the state even as he has weakened in other parts of the country. Support for Obama may play a key role in the Senate contest, one of a handful nationally that could determine which party wins control of the chamber.
At the same time, the survey showed, Republicans Whitman and Fiorina have yet to convince crucial groups of voters that their business backgrounds will translate into government success.
Brown, the former governor and current attorney general, held a 49%-44% advantage among likely voters over Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive at EBay.
Boxer, a three-term incumbent, led Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, by 51%-43% among likely voters in the survey, a joint effort by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Both Republicans were hamstrung by voters' negative impressions of them -- particularly Whitman, who has poured a national record $119 million of her own money into an advertising-heavy campaign yet has seen her unpopularity rise, the survey showed.
Still, in this year of political tumult, the Democrats were facing stiff challenges too. As they do nationally, Republicans in California held a fierce edge in enthusiasm among likely voters. The poll defined likely voters based both on past voting history and enthusiasm about voting this year -- a measure that projects an election turnout that is more heavily Republican than is typical in California. If the Democratic turnout ends up being even more sharply depressed, that would put the party's candidates at risk.
Brown, for example, trailed by 12 points among those most enthusiastic about voting this year. Boxer's lead reversed to a 17-point deficit among the most enthusiastic voters.
Defining the contours of the election was the state's dire economic landscape, strewn with unemployment, home foreclosures and dysfunction in Sacramento. Only 8% of likely voters said California was headed in the right direction; 86% said it was on the wrong track.
"We're really in a mess in California," poll respondent Bonnie Kawasaki of Riverside said in a follow-up interview. "Nothing is getting done."
Echoing that newly registered Democrat was Republican Tricia Johnson.
"We're already in horrible times, but it's not getting better, it's getting worse," said Johnson, who lives in the Placer County town of Loomis. "I feel like we're losing our country, and California is leading the way."
Still, the poll found disappointment more than anger on the part of voters, by better than 2-1. The ratio contradicted what has been seen elsewhere, pollster Stan Greenberg said.
"This is not 'tea party' America," he said.
The Los Angeles Times/USC poll was conducted Sept. 15-22 by the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. More than 1,500 California voters were surveyed, among them 887 likely voters. The margin of sampling error for the likely voter sample was 3.3 points in either direction.
The tight contest for governor offered bragging rights to both candidates. Brown has withstood Whitman's fusillade of negative advertising over the summer; the poll began only one week after Brown started airing his first television ads of the campaign. Whitman, for her part, had encroached upon the usual Democratic lead in California.
Still, Brown led among all three groups Whitman set out to conquer. Women were siding with him 51%-42%. Latinos backed him by a 20-point margin. Younger voters, typically a source of support for Democrats, were only narrowly in Brown's corner, perhaps because most voters under 30 have little direct knowledge of him.
Whitman's most recent ads have hit Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal who is incapable of creating the jobs that can lift California out of its economic doldrums. Neither argument appears to have made much of a dent so far. When asked which candidate was better on taxes, Whitman had a 3-point lead. She led on the economy, 46%-36%, but he had a 5-point edge on creating jobs.