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Essential Politics: Rubio, Cruz make their move in the GOP field

Donald Trump and Ben Carson remain the leaders in the Republican presidential field, both in California and nationally, but two freshman senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, have moved into a solid second tier, a new USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief, and this is the Friday edition of Essential Politics, in which we take a look at the major developments of the week and the stories that provide insight behind the headlines.

This week, however, we've got some news to release -- the latest USC-Dornsife/L.A. Times poll, which is actually two polls simultaneously, one on voters in California, the other nationwide.

Complete results of the poll, looking at voter attitudes one year ahead of the 2016 election, as well as the race on the Democratic side, will be released on Sunday. So check back in the print edition of The Times or latimes.com/politics for all the key details.

In the Republican race, Trump and Carson are virtually tied for the lead among Republican voters in California, with 20% for the businessman and reality TV star and 19% for the retired neurosurgeon. Nationally, Trump holds a small lead over Carson, 25%-21%.

As those two non-traditional candidates continue to hold the lead, Rubio and Cruz have moved up to become the top contenders among those with more typical political credentials.

Rubio is in third place in the poll, at 14% in California and 12% nationally. Cruz is at 11% in California and 12% nationally. Jeb Bush, the party's one-time front-runner, has faded to 4%, both statewide and nationally.

One particular point of strength for Rubio -- he has gained support among college-educated Republicans and is now in first place among that group in California.

The Republican primary electorate in recent elections has been divided about evenly between an upscale wing of voters with college educations and a blue-collar wing without college degrees. Trump has built a strong lead among the down-scale wing of the party, and Rubio's support among college graduates could provide him an important base as the primary season develops.

With the election now one year away,  Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan have gone to Colorado, to look more deeply into voter concerns in the key swing state of the West. The electorate is "anxious, wary and not terribly confident about what lies ahead," they found.

In the battle for the GOP nomination, Carson's key constituency is made up of  frequent churchgoers, among whom he has a strong lead. Seema Mehtawent to Iowa to take a close look at his support among evangelical voters in the state that holds the first contest of the primary season. In the last two election cycles, evangelical voters propelled then-Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to victories in Iowa. Carson hopes to repeat their success.

While that battle unfolds on the Republican side, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been consolidating her support among key Democratic constituencies. Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have battled intensely over labor union endorsements. Sanders has considerable support among the rank and file in some unions, but as Evan Halper reports, that has yet to translate into union backing. Clinton may not be 100%, union leaders have decided, but 90% is good enough.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic contest, it's clear that the party has moved to the left in this campaign. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has played a major role in that. But can Warren maintain her clout as Clinton gains? Noah Bierman took a look at the influential populist senator from Massachusetts.

There was also an election this week, of course, and Republicans won the marquee race -- the fight for the governor's seat in Kentucky. The state is one of the last in the South where Democrats have remained competitive, but as Finnegan reports, the victory by Republican Matt Bevin shows that Democrats there are losing their ability to withstand the tide that has remade Southern politics.

Finally, if you haven't already checked out our reporting on the wealth of California's members of Congress, you should. In the latest installment, Javier Panzar takes a close look at Rep. Nancy Pelosi's multimillion-dollar vineyard in the Napa Valley.

That wraps up this week. On Monday, my colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back with the daily newsletter. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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