If a new statewide survey is on the mark, it clearly pays to be active in the early stages of a governor's race.
Democratic Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, in a dramatic turnaround, is now essentially even with Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson in a theoretical matchup by the independent California Poll.
According to political professionals who have seen the numbers, Van de Kamp has 44% to Wilson's 43%. The poll of 807 people, including Republicans and Democrats, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.
Just three months ago Wilson was leading Van de Kamp by 8 points in the California Poll, which is conducted by Mervin D. Field of San Francisco.
"What explains this change is that you've had one very active candidate for governor since the summer and that candidate is John Van de Kamp," said Democratic media consultant Kam Kuwata.
A recent Los Angeles Times Poll also found Van de Kamp and Wilson dead even.
Perhaps the worst news in the new California Poll was for former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who is challenging Van de Kamp for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Feinstein led Van de Kamp by 27% to 22% in Field's February survey, an admittedly early poll that few paid attention to. In the new survey, those familiar with the numbers said Monday, Feinstein is now trailing Van de Kamp by 53% to 35%.
For that matchup, political sources said, 387 Democrats were polled and the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 points.
Beginning in late July, Van de Kamp has generated a lot of headlines, charging that a ballot initiative sponsored by Wilson could endanger a woman's right to abortion and introducing his own initiatives on the environment, crime and political ethics.
Feinstein has been quietly trying to raise money and build political alliances, neither of which automatically makes news. She also has been without a full-time campaign consultant since Clint Reilly of San Francisco quit in a huff in August.
For his part, Wilson has received some attention by taking on the plight of drug-addicted babies and by being very active after the Bay Area earthquake.
But as the senator conceded in an interview last month, his attention to his duties in Washington has put him at a disadvantage so far in the governor's race.
Van de Kamp, being in the state all the time, has been better able to seize the initiative at this stage.
"People are responding to our positive discussion of change, to new ideas," Van de Kamp said Monday after hearing of the turnaround in the California Poll.
Not surprisingly, the Wilson camp had its own interpretation of the latest poll numbers.
"We have been anticipating all along that this race was tight," said Wilson campaign manager George Gorton. "It is a result of Pete Wilson doing a good job as U.S. senator, which is reflected in this same poll, and in John Van de Kamp consolidating his left, which will come back to haunt him next year."
The California Poll found that 48% of Californians believe Wilson is doing an "excellent or good job" as a U.S. senator, up from 38% who thought that in April.
"Our turn will come next year when Pete is out here and people begin to focus on the governor's race," said Gorton.