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Davis Builds Big Lead in Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gray Davis has opened a substantial lead over Bill Simon Jr. in the race for California governor, as disenchanted voters turn to the incumbent Democrat as the better of two unsatisfying choices, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.

The survey, completed Sunday night, suggests that Davis’ attack strategy against Republican Simon has paid off: After a multimillion-dollar barrage of critical TV ads, the Los Angeles businessman is now viewed negatively by about half of those likely to vote. Davis’ image, in turn, has improved slightly over the last few months.

More significantly, although Davis receives poor marks on issues such as handling the state budget, energy and his personal ethics, likely voters said the governor would still do a better job in those areas than Simon.

Overall, Davis was leading his Republican rival 45% to 35% among likely voters, with 7% supporting other candidates and 13% undecided. When a lower turnout scenario was factored in--with fewer than half of registered voters casting ballots--Davis extended his lead over Simon to 46% to 34%.

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The poll found a strong Democratic tide running through California, with the party’s nominees leading all seven down-ballot contests for offices such as lieutenant governor, treasurer and attorney general--often by substantial margins.

Two of the higher-profile measures on the Nov. 5 ballot were getting mixed receptions. Proposition 49, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed measure to promote after-school programs, was supported by 55% of those surveyed and opposed by 31%. Proposition 52, which would allow same-day voter registration, was trailing with 39% in favor and 51% opposed.

As the campaign heads into its final five weeks, Californians are plainly discontented with both the direction of the state and their choices of who will occupy the governor’s seat for the next four years. Though that can cause a certain amount of volatility among voters, in this case Democrats appear to be benefiting.

More than half, 51% of registered voters, believe that the state is heading in the wrong direction, up from 40% in February. And 65% of those likely to turn out next month said they wished there were other candidates running, besides Davis and Simon, with a plausible shot at winning the governorship.

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“It’s like choosing between two bad apples,” said Chris DeLong, a 32-year-old government worker and registered independent from Sacramento, who considers Simon too conservative but questions Davis’ trustworthiness. In a follow-up interview, DeLong said he is leaning toward a vote to reelect the governor only because he worries that his support for a third-party candidate would be wasted.

The dissatisfaction transcends party lines, although Democrats are somewhat more contented with their gubernatorial nominee than Republicans. Only about a third of Simon supporters were satisfied with their choice, compared to more than four in 10 Davis supporters who were satisfied with their candidate.

“Frankly, I’ll do anything to keep Gray Davis from being elected again,” said Barbara Pouliot, 41, a Republican from Fullerton. “I can’t think of a single thing that he’s done right.” That said, Pouliot suggested that Simon “just doesn’t have the experience to be governor. It’s the best of a bad choice.”

Conversely, Dolores Halden, a 70-year-old Republican and retired nurse in Sunnyvale, used words like “opportunist” to describe Davis. Still, she finds him more honest than Simon, who “seems pretty sleazy” in his business dealings. Above all, Halden said, she wishes that she had other choices at the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets.

Davis’ lukewarm standing with Californians would normally signal trouble for an incumbent, particularly since he has spent millions of dollars to plead his case over the television airwaves.

Overall, likely voters are divided in their impressions of the governor, with 48% having a favorable view of Davis and 51% an unfavorable impression.

The biggest reason for unhappiness with the incumbent was his performance during last year’s energy crisis, cited by nearly half of likely voters with an unfavorable opinion of Davis.

In recent months evidence has emerged that major energy companies gamed the deregulated California electricity market, contributing to the state’s energy problems. But Elizabeth Carlton, apparently speaking for many, said Davis is still somewhat to blame. “He should have been able to detect what was going on and do something about it,” said Carlton, 84, a retired Oakland homemaker who is a registered Democrat. “That’s his job.”

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On another major issue facing California, more than half--52%--of likely voters disapproved of Davis’ handling of the state budget. He received better marks for his record on education--the governor’s stated No. 1 priority--but still only 49% approved. Thirty-nine percent disapproved.

On the broader leadership question, Davis boosted his standing somewhat since the last Times Poll in February. At that stage, fewer than half of registered voters described Davis as a decisive leader. In the latest survey, 51% said he fit that description. (The figure was 50% among likely voters.)

But despite the political danger usually posed by such middling ratings, most of the likely voters surveyed still believe that Davis would do a better job on most issues than Simon. On education, crime, domestic security, the economy and general leadership abilities Davis was favored over Simon by seven percentage points or more among likely voters. Even on energy, likely voters were evenly split over which candidate would do a better job, with Simon favored only slightly, 39% to 37%.

The contest for governor is Simon’s first run for political office. He was the surprise winner in the March GOP primary and enjoyed a burst of favorable publicity after upsetting former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. But months of daily pounding by negative Davis TV spots have badly hurt Simon’s image, with 51% now having a negative impression of the Republican nominee.

Indeed, the challenge facing Simon over the next five weeks is stark. Davis was leading his opponent among likely voters of all age groups, education and income levels. The governor was predictably ahead in the Democratic-leaning Los Angeles region and the San Francisco Bay Area. But he was virtually tied with Simon in Republican-tilting areas outside California’s two biggest metropolitan centers.

Many of Davis’ TV spots have focused on Simon’s business record, and the criticism has clearly taken hold. Of those with a negative impression of Simon, close to half said their feelings stemmed from doubts about his honesty and integrity.

“I don’t like Simon,” said Republican Wesley Wolfe, 59, of Westchester, who developed his negative view “primarily from Davis’ ads.” He doesn’t much care for the governor either, Wolfe said, but would probably back him as “the lesser of two evils.”

Throughout the campaign, Simon has attacked Davis’ prodigious fund-raising, calling him a “coin-operated” governor who runs a “pay-to-play administration” that favors big campaign donors. Davis has repeatedly denied any connection between the money he raises and the policies he pursues.

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But the poll found little evidence that Simon’s assault has dented Davis: By 44% to 27%, likely voters said they believed that the incumbent has more honesty and integrity to serve as governor than his challenger.

“That’s the way politics is,” Maxine Bracy, 67, a Los Angeles teacher, Democrat and Davis supporter, said of the governor’s fundraising. “I don’t think anyone can win unless they’re extremely rich. So they have to raise money.”

Two contentious issues--abortion and gun control--have so far played little role in the race, as Simon has sought to downplay his stance and Davis has focused instead on his opponent’s business record and personal integrity.

Simon opposes abortion in most instances and is against the adoption of more gun controls. Davis, in contrast, has signed legislation broadening abortion rights and extending curbs on firearms.

Asked about abortion, 57% of likely voters said it should be legal most of the time. Of those, nearly six in 10 were backing Davis. Of the 38% who said abortion should be illegal save for a few exceptions, just over half supported Simon.

On gun control, just about half of likely voters, 48%, said they favored a further crackdown on firearms. Of those, six in 10 were backing Davis.

Of the 16% who favored fewer restrictions on guns, Simon was supported by just about seven in 10 likely voters. The GOP nominee was also outpolling Davis among those who believe that the current restrictions are just about right, leading 44% to 34%.

The Times Poll, under the direction of Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,171 registered voters Sept. 25-29. There were 679 likely voters. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For likely voters it is 4 points.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) *

The California Election

Californians who are likely to vote in the Nov. 5 election were asked:

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If the election for governor were being held today, for whom would you vote?

Gray Davis 45%

Bill Simon Jr. 35

Peter Miguel Camejo 4

Gary David Copeland 1

Iris Adam 1

Reinhold Guike -

Someone else 1

Don’t know 13

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What is the most important issue for the next governor to address?

Education 31%

Economy 28

Energy crisis 16

Budget deficit 11

Immigration 10

Accepted up to two replies; top five responses shown

* What is your impression of:

Gray Davis

Favorable: 48%

Unfavorable: 51%

Haven’t heard enough/Don’t know: 1%

Bill Simon Jr.

Favorable: 35%

Unfavorable: 51%

Haven’t heard enough/Don’t know: 14%

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Would you say that Gray Davis has shown decisive leadership while serving as governor of California, or not?

Don’t know 6%

Yes 50%

No 44%

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Who would do the better job of handling:

Davis Simon Both/Neither Don’t know

Public education? 49% 27 12 12

California’s economy? 44% 37 13 6

Crime? 42% 28 16 14

The terrorism threat? 42% 29 17 12

The energy situation? 37% 39 15 9

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Which Candidate ...

Davis Simon Both/Neither Don’t know

Knows more about California issues? 68% 11 12 9

Is doing more negative campaigning? 61% 13 16 10

Has stronger leadership qualities? 45% 27 16 12

Has more honesty & integrity? 44% 27 19 10

Shares your values? 41% 30 23 6

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Are you satisfied with the choices for governor, or do you wish there were other candidates to choose from?

Satisfied 33%

Wish there were other choices: 65%

Don’t know 2%

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Do you approve or disapprove of the way Gray Davis is handling ...

Registered Voters Likely Voters Approve Disapprove Approve Disapprove

His job as governor? 51% 44 48% 48

Public school education? 51% 37 49% 39

The state’s budget? 36% 49 36% 52

The energy situation? 34% 59 35% 60

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Other Races and Propositions

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Likely voters were also asked how they would vote on the following statewide races and ballot propositions if the election were held today:

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For lieutenant governor:

Cruz Bustamante (D) 52%

Bruce McPherson (R) 31

Someone else 1

Don’t know 16

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For secretary of state:

Keith Olberg (R) 32%

Kevin Shelley (D) 46

Don’t know 22

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For controller:

Tom McClintock (R) 35%

Steve Westly (D) 44

Don’t know 21

*

For treasurer:

Greg Conlon (R) 29%

Phil Angelides (D) 47

Don’t know 24

*

For attorney general:

Dick Ackerman (R) 31%

Bill Lockyer (D) 53

Don’t know 16

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For insurance commissioner:

Gary Mendoza (R) 29%

John Garamendi (D) 51

Someone else 1

Don’t know 19

*

For superintendent of public instruction:

Jack O’Connell 34%

Katherine H. Smith 15

Don’t know 51

On Proposition 49 (Before and After School Programs):**

Yes 55%

No 31

Don’t know 14

On Proposition 52 (Election Day Voter Registration):**

Yes 39%

No 51

Don’t know 10

**Voters were read a summary of the ballot language describing Props. 49 and 52.

Notes: All results are among likely voters unless otherwise indicated. Results shown in ‘vote’ questions include voters who said they are ‘leaning toward’ voting a particular way. Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown. "-" indicates less than 0.5%.

Source: L.A. Times Poll

HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED

The Times Poll contacted 1,171 Californians registered to vote, including 679 likely voters, statewide by telephone Sept. 25-29. 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. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education, region and registration. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for likely voters it is 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. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll

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Claudia Vaughn, data management supervisor for The Times Poll, also contributed to this report


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