Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel are the two front-runners in the mayoral… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel are locked in a tie for the lead in the Los Angeles mayoral primary, but their chances of clinching spots in the May runoff rest with a huge swath of likely voters open to switching candidates before Tuesday's vote, according to a new USC Price / Los Angeles Times poll.
The survey, taken last Sunday through Wednesday, found Garcetti at 27% and Greuel at a statistically even 25%. Bunched behind the two Democrats were Republican lawyer Kevin James at 15% and Democratic Councilwoman Jan Perry at 14%. Former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez trailed at 5%.
The survey showed that none of the major candidates has cultivated deep support among any of the big voter groups that can swing Los Angeles elections. (James has sparked enthusiasm among Republicans and conservatives, but those groups are too small by themselves to push a candidate to victory.)
The voters' tentative embrace of the Democrats in the race makes the election climate highly volatile. The poll found 14% of likely voters hadn't yet picked a candidate -- and of those who had, nearly half said they might still change their minds.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 06, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
USC/Los Angeles Times poll: An article about a poll on the Los Angeles mayoral race in the March 3 Section A referred to the Jesse M. Unruh School of Politics at USC. It is the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Adding to the unpredictability is a new burst of TV and radio attack ads that could trigger late shifts in public opinion.
Despite months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, poll director Dan Schnur said, no one has yet captivated voters the way incumbent Antonio Villaraigosa did when he sought to become the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles or Richard Riordan did as a business-oriented outsider in the aftermath of the 1992 riots.
"Voters don't appear to have very strong feelings about anyone who's running or anything they're talking about," said Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh School of Politics at USC.
The USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll found that both Garcetti and Greuel have had limited success in building a base among the major constituencies they have targeted. Their similar records and Democratic views have left them in something of a middling stand-off.
Garcetti, who often highlights his Mexican ancestry and fluent Spanish, has gained an edge among Latinos but remains a long way from the swell of Latino support that swept Villaraigosa into office.
Latinos favored Garcetti over Greuel, 37% to 19%. But close to a third of Latinos said they preferred other candidates, including Perry, 12%, and Pleitez, 11%.
In 2005, Villaraigosa won 64% of Latinos in the primary and 84% in the runoff, Times exit polls found.
Garcetti performed strongest -- although with barely a third of the respondents -- on the Eastside and in the central city, where he has represented the Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park areas on the council.
Greuel, a former council member who lives in Studio City, held a narrow advantage in the San Fernando Valley -- but also with less than a third of those surveyed.
The poll also found no traction yet from Greuel's frequent appeals to women that she would make history as the city's first female mayor. Among likely female voters, the two were essentially tied: Greuel, 26%, Garcetti, 25%, followed by Perry, 16%.
If she makes the runoff, however, Greuel can take solace in another finding: 28% of likely voters said, in response to a separate question, that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would be the first female mayor. Since those voters were not all backing Greuel now, she has upward potential, the pollsters suggested.
Respondents also appeared to like Greuel's core message. Nearly 4 out of 5 said they would be more likely to vote for someone who pledges to root out government waste and fraud, as Greuel has promised in her advertising. That would bode well for her in a runoff that did not include James, as it is popular among Republicans who favor him in the primary.
Still, those surveyed also reacted favorably to Garcetti's argument that he deserves credit for budget and workforce cuts he pushed at City Hall after the recession hit. More than 7 in 10 said they would be more likely to vote for someone who had made tough budget choices to address the city's financial challenges. Garcetti also holds advantages among liberals and younger voters.
In follow-up interviews, some likely voters who participated in the poll said the leading candidates had made little impression.
Lee Borisof, 69, a retired construction worker from Winnetka, said he backed Garcetti but knew almost nothing about him. "I don't know what his opinions are," Borisof said. "I don't know how he manages things. I really have in my mind no sense of what kind of a job he's going to do. He seems like a fairly responsible person, though."