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The Times Poll : Cranston Holds 15% Lead; Zschau Seen as an Enigma

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Sen. Alan Cranston, who many experts earlier had thought was on the last legs of a long political career, now is running comfortably ahead of a Republican challenger who is having trouble even winning the votes of his own party, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Rep. Ed Zschau, the former high-tech entrepreneur whom the political pros figured was the Republicans’ best hope of sending Cranston into forced retirement, still is an enigma to many voters. They are not sure where he is coming from or where he stands.

The statewide poll of 1,550 registered voters found Cranston to be leading Zschau by a 15-point margin--39% to 24%. There is a bright spot for Zschau, however: 37% of the voters have no preference in the contest, and this gives him a big field to cultivate. On the other hand, these are people who tend to vote for the Democratic candidate, when they vote.

Times interviewers also offered voters the names of three minor party candidates who will be on the Nov. 4 ballot--Libertarian Breck McKinley, American Independent Edward Vallen and Paul Kangas of the Peace and Freedom Party--but there was virtually no support for any of them.

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The telephone survey, supervised by Times Poll Director I.A. Lewis, was conducted for six days ending Tuesday night. The margin of error for this size survey is 3% in either direction.

The big dilemma for Zschau is that at this stage of a California political campaign when candidates normally would be trying to broaden their voter base by moving toward the ideological center, he still is trying to firm up a base. Less than half the Republican voters are supporting him, the poll showed.

Within the GOP, Zschau is receiving 46% of the support, compared to 18% for Cranston. The rest have no opinion. Conversely, Cranston is being backed by 56% of his fellow Democrats. Only 9% support Zschau.

There is another finding that illustrates Zschau’s soft support among voters who normally would be expected to line up behind a GOP senatorial candidate: He is being backed by less than half (45%) of the people who intend to vote for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. By comparison, Cranston is being supported by nearly two-thirds of the people who are siding with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley.

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Backers of Zschau largely seem to be motivated by a dislike for Cranston, the 72-year-old veteran of three terms in the Senate and three decades in public office who President Reagan last Sunday denounced as “one of America’s most strident liberal leftists.”

Among Zschau’s supporters, 76% have an “unfavorable” impression of Cranston, and for 35%, it is “very” unfavorable. Only 49% of Cranston’s supporters have an unfavorable impression of Zschau. But 93% of Cranston’s supporters hold a favorable impression of the veteran Democrat, and for 59% it is “very” favorable.

Overall, the voters’ impression of Cranston is 64% favorable, 30% unfavorable, with only 6% not sure. For Zschau, whose image is not nearly as clear, it is 41% favorable, 27% unfavorable, and 32% not sure.

Of course, one of the main strategies of Cranston--an adroit, seasoned veteran of countless political wars--is to promote voter confusion about Zschau.

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Immediately after the June primary election, when the Northern California congressman won the Republican nomination, garnering only 37% of the vote in a crowded field, Cranston took to the television airways with the first of many anti-Zschau “flip-flop” commercials. The senator has followed with periodic “flip-flop updates,” accusing his opponent of casting conflicting votes on a variety of issues.

Zschau’s critics within the GOP hierarchy also have complained that the Republican candidate has helped create confusion about himself with his campaigning style.

For whatever reason, there indeed is confusion about Zschau among the voters, The Times Poll found.

For example, when asked which candidate has “the best position on apartheid in South Africa,” two-thirds of the Republicans either do not know or think there is no difference between Zschau or Cranston. The remainder are split about evenly between the two. Actually, Cranston argues for tough sanctions against South Africa, while Zschau loyally supports Reagan’s soft-line policy.

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Overall, among those with an opinion, California voters favor Cranston’s position by 3 to 1.

On support of Israel, three-fourths of Republicans either do not know which candidate has the “best position,” or believe there is no difference between the two. The remainder are equally divided. Overall, voters favor Cranston’s strong support of Israel by 3 to 1.

Zschau is thought by many political strategists to have committed a major blunder when he returned from a post-primary visit to Israel and waffled for days over whether to support future arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He finally said he would oppose the sales, a change in position.

There apparently is not much confusion among Jews about which candidate is the best for Israel, because they support Cranston over Zschau by 7 to 1.

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On toxics, an issue Cranston has been hammering away at, six in 10 Republicans either do not know which candidate has the best position, or believe there is no difference. Overall, among those with an opinion, voters favor Cranston’s tough stance by more than 2 to 1.

In the view of Cranston’s supporters, the “single most important quality” about their candidate is his “experience.” Zschau’s backers cite his “philosophy,” followed by his political “party.”

Perhaps most telling (even Republicans believe, by a four-point margin), is that Cranston “has the clearest focus on his own personal objectives.” Among all voters, Cranston gets the nod on this score by more than 2 1/2 to 1.

Likewise, by a nine-point margin, Republicans think Cranston exhibits “the strongest qualities of leadership.” Overall, voters rate Cranston the best on leadership by more than 3 to 1.

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And asked who they believe ultimately will win the election, Republicans predict by 5 to 3 that it will be Cranston. Democrats confidently feel that way by more than 7 to 1.


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