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THE TIMES POLL : Majority Disapprove of Wilson Presidential Bid : Politics: But his popularity in the state is up. Proposed affirmative action initiative has overwhelming support.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson has bounced back in popularity among Californians, but their goodwill does not extend to his next potential political venue: By a huge margin, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found, voters say Wilson should not run for President.

Almost two-thirds of voters--including 59% of Republicans--said Wilson should not seek the 1996 Republican nomination. And in a hypothetical contest with President Clinton, Wilson loses his own state by a substantial margin, 51% to 42%.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who is the most popular prospective Republican nominee in the survey, narrowly defeats Clinton in California, but the President would defeat other lesser-known Republican candidates if the election were held now.

The Times Poll presented Wilson with a classic case of good news and bad news. Although he is undeniably more popular now than he has been since the recession began to take its toll on the state in 1991, Wilson cannot take for granted the major strength he would supposedly bring to the presidential race--the ability to capture the nation’s biggest electoral state, one that is a must-win for Clinton.

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The survey also showed that Wilson’s recent overtures to his party’s conservatives have paid off in strong support from that wing, from whom he was once estranged. But they appear to have alienated some Republican moderates who defect from him to Clinton in a hypothetical matchup.

One measure recently embraced by Wilson in the run-up to his presidential decision is overwhelmingly popular among voters, the poll showed. Fully two-thirds of the state’s registered voters favor a proposed initiative that would prohibit using race or gender to discriminate against or benefit people in government employment or university enrollments.

The proposal, which is likely to appear on the November, 1996, ballot, has come under fire from proponents of affirmative action who contend that it would gut 30 years of efforts to spur advancement by minorities and women. They have their work cut out: Only 26% of registered voters oppose the proposed initiative, which is favored by whites, Asian Americans and Latinos. Black voters are split on the measure.

Californians favored Wilson’s proposed 15% tax cut, by a narrow margin of 48%-44%. They also sided with the governor in his refusal to implement a new law that would require states to allow voters to register when they get a driver’s license or apply for public assistance. The governor contends that the state cannot afford to enforce the law unless the federal government pays for it.

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But they are split on a proposal to change the state Constitution to deny Lt. Gov. Gray Davis an automatic bump up to the governorship if Wilson were to be elected President. That proposal has been advanced by some Wilson partisans as a way around the politically distasteful reality that a Democrat would become governor if Wilson were to become President.

The poll was conducted March 4-9 with 1,390 Californians, 1,011 of whom are registered voters. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is 3 percentage points in either direction; for registered voters it is 4 points in either direction. Margins of error for smaller subgroups may be larger.

Times Poll Director John Brennan cautioned that Wilson’s relatively poor showing in the presidential arena may be a typical response by voters to the desire of a governor to seek higher office: More often than not, home-staters tend to throw cold water on the idea.

“That doesn’t mean he can’t consolidate them later on,” Brennan said.

And he could, of course, gain ground on Clinton with the general election 20 months away. Wilson is, after all, the same politician who fought back from a 20-point deficit to defeat Democrat Kathleen Brown in November’s gubernatorial election.

But the poll underscored that Wilson’s improvement now is relative. Although his job approval ratings were the best since the spring after his first inauguration in 1991, he still was lauded by only 47% of all voters, with 44% disliking the job he has done.

That rating has swerved like a roller coaster during Wilson’s time in office, which has been deluged by natural disasters. In May, 1991, 52% approved of Wilson, but by October, 1992, he had bottomed out at 28% support. Since then, as the state’s economy has sputtered toward improvement, Wilson has gradually improved his standing.

“His job rating is improved but not stellar,” Brennan said.

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An indication that Wilson is either not desired or not thought of as a Republican presidential nominee came when Republicans interviewed in the poll were asked to list their favorite in the race.

Dole was far and away the leader, with 27% supporting him, 9% favoring Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and 6% naming Wilson. Although Gramm has sought to carve a niche as the most conservative candidate in the race, the poll showed that Dole captured even self-described conservative Republicans, 27% to Gramm’s 12%. Most voters were undecided.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination will confront a Democratic President who remains more popular in California than in other parts of the nation. While recent national polls have put Clinton’s job rating at 44%, he was favored by 50% of Californians and 48% of registered voters here.

Clinton would lose the state to Dole if the election were held now--by a razor-thin 48% to 45%--but he held the decided advantage over Wilson. The difference appeared to be largely the candidates’ appeal to the moderate voters who dominate California politics. When faced with a choice between Clinton and Wilson, independents and moderates turned to the Democrat more often than when choosing between Clinton and Dole.

In a matchup between Clinton and Wilson, 40% of non-conservative Republicans strayed over the party line to vote for Clinton. When choosing between Clinton and Dole, only 25% sided with Clinton, the remainder staying true to the Republican.

Among the other half of the middle ground, moderate and conservative Democrats, Dole had slightly more appeal than Wilson. In matchups with Clinton, Dole pulled 30% of the conservative Democratic vote to Wilson’s 26%.

The irony is that on social issues, Wilson is more moderate than Dole--favoring abortion rights, and signing a bill protecting the rights of gay Californians. But his conservative-tinged campaign for governor apparently masked those inclinations.

“The people he needs to consolidate, ironically, are the moderate to liberal Republicans,” Brennan said.

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Clinton, who has been so buffeted during his first term that rumors persist of a Democratic challenge to him in 1996, remains a viable presence in the nation’s largest electoral state.

When matched against other GOP candidates, who are admittedly less known than Dole or Wilson, Clinton won every contest. He defeated Gramm 51% to 31%, Indiana Sen. Richard P. Lugar 48% to 26%, and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander 50% to 26%.

The greatest benefit to him, however, could be the entrance of an independent campaign that could bleed off Republican votes. Although Dole beat Clinton in a two-man race, Clinton edged Dole when voters were asked to include independent Ross Perot in a three-man scenario.

The results showed Clinton with 40%, Dole at 38% and Perot at 18%, roughly replicating the results of the 1992 California general election that featured Clinton, Perot and Republican George Bush.

Clinton’s standing was more remarkable because Republicans have, for the first time since 1991, established themselves in Californians’ minds as the party best able to handle the state’s problems. Forty-one percent said Republicans were better, to 30% for Democrats. In late October, the situation was reversed, with 38% siding with Democrats and 34% saying Republicans were better.

According to the poll, the first flutterings of the 1996 presidential campaign--and Wilson’s serious consideration of the race--are occurring as state residents are demonstrating an ever so slight optimism about the long-battered state.

Asked whether the state was in a recession, 22% said that it was not--up from the 16% who held the same opinion in October. At the same time, the percentage who characterized the recession as serious declined from 31% to 28%.

While 14% described the state’s economy as “robust” in October, 24% characterized it that way this month.

Another measure of improvement came when respondents were asked whether the state is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track--a traditional way of measuring optimism. The answer was still negative--55% said things were on the wrong track. But 32% said the state was headed in the right direction, the first time that measure has crept above 30% in four years.

Still, the optimism was tempered. Californians were reluctant to count on things getting better fast. They were evenly split on whether unemployment would be better or worse in three months. And while 21% said the economy would be better in three months, almost the same percentage, 17%, said it would be worse.

The sense of insecurity about the economy--and the growing competition for jobs--is one of the factors believed to be propelling the proposed affirmative action initiative onto the ballot. And the poll showed that at this early date, support for it is broad.

Among voters, all ethnic groups except blacks favor the measure, ranging from 71% of whites to 52% of Latinos. While 45% of blacks supported it, 48% opposed it. All political persuasions backed the measure, from 54% of Democrats to 68% of independents and 80% of Republicans.

One of the few state politicians to vocally oppose the measure has been Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who has castigated it as an effort to return to overt discrimination against blacks and others.

Brown has been embroiled in another controversy, this one the dispute between himself and Republican Assembly Leader Jim Brulte over leadership of the lower house. The fight for the Speakership stopped work in the Assembly for weeks, but that did little damage to either Brown or the Legislature’s image.

That may be because the image of both is exceedingly low. Brown had a favorable rating of 27%, the same as when it was last measured in 1993. The Legislature also had a 27% positive rating, about the same as it has been in the past.

“All the brouhaha in Sacramento doesn’t seem to have affected the Legislature or Willie Brown at all,” Brennan said.

The state’s two U.S. senators had varying degrees of popularity in the new poll. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who barely survived a blistering campaign against Republican Mike Huffington, was supported by 43%, while 40% disapproved of the way she has handled her job. That was down from Feinstein’s highest ranking of 52% a year ago, but up from 35% in October.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, who does not face reelection until 1998, had a 34% approval rating, down from 39% one year ago.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

California Politics

According to a Time poll, Californians now give Gov. Pete Wilson his highest job rating since May, 1991 . . . 3/95: 47% *

. . . but most voters say he should not seek the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. Should not: 63% Should seek nomination: 29% Don’t know: 8% *

California Republicans view Sen. Bob Dole as the early leader in the GOP presidential race, although more than 40% remain undecided. In general election matchups, Dole does better among all registered voters against President Clinton than either Wilson or Sen. Phil Gramm. Bob Dole: 27% Phil Gram: 9% Pete Wilson: 6% Lamar Alexander: 1% Richard G. Lugar: 1% Others: 15% Don’t know: 41% *

Clinton: 45% Dole: 48% *

Clinton: 45% Wilson: 42% *

Clinton: 45% Gramm: 31% *

Do you favor or oppose an initiative for the 1996 California ballot that would prohibit the state or localities from using race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment, public education or public contracting?

All Whites Blacks Latinos Asians Favor 66% 71% 45% 52% 54% Oppose 26% 21% 48% 41% 35% Don’t know 8% 8% 7% 7% 11%

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll, March 4-9, 1995

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll interviewed 1,390 adults statewide by telephone March 4-9. The sample includes 1,011 registered voters. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region of the state. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the sample of registered voters it is plus or minus 4 points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors, such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.


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