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The Times Poll : Wilson Leads McCarthy by Comfortable 17 Points

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Sen. Pete Wilson is coasting in front of Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy by 17 points in a race many voters have been ignoring despite a multimillion-dollar volley of largely negative television ads, The Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

With election day only about two weeks away, nearly one-third of California’s likely voters still have not decided which candidate to support for the U.S. Senate. By contrast, only 4% are undecided in the presidential race, the same Times survey showed.

Most voters have no idea which Senate candidate has the best positions on crime, the environment and Social Security--issues that have been major subjects of their campaign commercials and stump speeches.

This is a contest that, more than anything else, is being decided by knee-jerk ideology, with conservatives backing Republican Wilson and the smaller bloc of liberals supporting Democrat McCarthy. Middle-of-the-roaders also are siding with Wilson.

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The Times survey found Wilson leading McCarthy by 43% to 26%, with 30% undecided and 1% planning to vote for some other candidate.

Wilson is comfortably ahead in every region of the state except for McCarthy’s home turf, the San Francisco Bay Area, where the two are running even. The incumbent leads 7 to 4 in the rest of Northern California, nearly 5 to 3 in Los Angeles County and roughly 5 to 2 in the remainder of Southern California.

The Times Poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, interviewed 1,376 Californians considered likely to vote on Nov. 8. The four-day telephone survey ended last Sunday. The margin of error is 4 percentage points in either direction.

Clearly, the presidential race and perhaps even some controversial ballot propositions--plus the Olympics and two California teams fighting through the baseball playoffs and into the World Series--have taken a toll on the efforts of these relatively bland Senate candidates to capture public attention.

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One-fourth of the likely Republican voters, nearly one-third of the Democrats and 4 in 10 Independents are undecided, the poll found.

Among voters who have chosen sides, Wilson is favored by Republicans more than 9 to 1 and by Independents 5 to 3. Democrats back McCarthy 5 to 3 overall. But “Reagan Democrats"--those highly coveted, swing-vote Democrats who defected from the party to back President Reagan in 1984--are supporting Wilson by 2 to 1.

Support by Conservatives

People who characterize themselves as conservatives form the the state’s biggest ideological bloc, making up 40% of the electorate. And they support Wilson by 7 to 1. Only 27% of the voters are liberals and they back McCarthy roughly 5 to 2. Equal in size is the moderate bloc, which sides with Wilson by about 5 to 3.

Illustrative of how dependent these candidates are upon their own natural ideological constituencies is that conservatives compose 58% of Wilson’s support base and liberals make up 56% of McCarthy’s support.

“When voters don’t know much about a candidate and you ask them how they are going to vote, they often fall back on their political instincts,” pollster Lewis said. “In this case, many seem to be saying, ‘I don’t know, but I’m a conservative and I hear he’s a conservative,’ or “I’m a liberal and they say on TV he’s a liberal.’ ”

Evidence that even likely voters have not been paying much attention to the candidates’ pitches was found when people were asked which contender they think is advocating the best policy on a series of campaign issues. Most voters had no opinion.

Positions Unclear

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For example, both candidates have spent a lot of time and money denouncing their opponent’s environmental record and promoting their own. But 60% of the voters had no idea whose position is best. People who did have a view are basically split, although this is an issue that traditionally has helped Democrats.

The results were precisely the same on the specific issue of off-shore oil drilling.

Similarly, 53% had no idea who would be “tougher on crime.” Of those with a view, the nod went to Wilson by 5 to 2.

On Social Security, the subject of a widely played McCarthy television ad denouncing Wilson for once voting to eliminate benefit increases, 69% of the voters could not say who has the “best policy.” The remainder were divided.

Even retired people, whom McCarthy has attempted to help throughout his political career and have been the special targets of his campaigning, are supporting Wilson by 5 to 3.

Many With No Opinion

Nearly one-third of the voters, however, had no opinion on whether Wilson “has been a strong voice for California” in the Senate. The remainder, by 5 to 3, said he had been.

“The single most important issue that has come up in the campaign” wound up in essentially a tie between crime, the federal budget deficit and Social Security, in the voters’ collective view. People saying crime support Wilson by 3 to 1. Those especially worried about the deficit and Social Security back him by 3 to 2.

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Offshore oil drilling ranked fourth on the list of important issues, and people choosing it basically are split between the two candidates.

McCarthy is handicapped by the weak coattails of the Democratic standard bearer, Michael S. Dukakis, who trails Republican George Bush by 11 points in this same Times survey. McCarthy’s problems are aggravated by the fact that he is receiving less than half of the support of Dukakis’ voters, while Wilson is attracting nearly two-thirds of Bush’s backers.

The Bird Factor

Another political irritant for McCarthy is former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, whom voters adamantly ousted from the bench two years ago, largely because of her decisions overturning the death penalty. Wilson has denounced McCarthy for his 1986 endorsement of Bird and the criticisms could be striking a receptive chord.

Bird still is highly unpopular, the survey found. The voters’ impressions of her are only 28% favorable to 59% unfavorable. People who like Bird support McCarthy by about 2 to 1, but they make up only roughly one-fourth of the electorate. Those who dislike her back Wilson by 7 to 2.

Capital punishment for murderers is supported by 77% of California’s voters, the survey found. And these people back Wilson--a longtime death penalty advocate--by nearly 3 to 1. Just 18% oppose executions for murderers, but they favor McCarthy by 5 to 2. The Democratic candidate now supports capital punishment, but he opposed it until three years ago.

Black Voter Support

The survey also found McCarthy currently being supported by only one-third of black voters, who in recent decades have voted heavily Democratic. Still, this is more than twice as much black support as Wilson is receiving. The remainder of black voters either are undecided or are planning to support other candidates.

Wilson and McCarthy are running even among Latino voters, a group that usually sides with Democrats in California.

People who live in central cities also are divided. But suburban voters favor Wilson by 5 to 2.


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