Kerry's Support in State Firms Up

Times Staff Writer

Driven by widespread rejection of Bush administration policies, California voters have solidified their support for Democratic challenger John F. Kerry and stand poised to deliver him California's 55 electoral votes on election day, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

While President Bush has reestablished a slight lead over Kerry in some recent national polls, Kerry's support in California has grown as the number of undecided voters has dropped.

Those describing themselves as undecided have shrunk to a mere 2% of likely voters, down from 5% in September, and Kerry was the beneficiary: The U.S. senator from Massachusetts was the choice of 58% of likely voters, a slight increase from last month's 55%. Support for Bush remained flat at 40% in the poll, which has a margin of error of three percentage points in either direction.

Both Kerry and Bush scored well among their own party faithful, but Kerry was the clear favorite among the independent voters who dictate the outcome of elections in California. He won 59% of them, while Bush won 35%. Overall, only 4% of likely voters said they might still change their minds, down from 6% in September, indicating that the thin stream of political uncertainty that courses elsewhere in the nation is running dry in California.

"I think [Kerry] has a much better approach to the world," said Linda Larkin, a retired UC Santa Cruz administrator and early Kerry supporter. "He's more thoughtful. I think he's better informed -- and he wants to be better informed.... I think he has the potential to bring the various factions in this country a little bit together."

Californians' dislike for Bush's policies on everything from Iraq to the economy propelled support for Kerry. Even Bush's signature national issue -- terrorism -- worked against him in California, where nearly three in five likely voters disapproved of his handling of the war on terror. Overall, voters were split over whether Kerry or Bush would best keep the country safe from terrorists.

"Four years ago, Bush lost the state by 12 points, and this year the president has not made any inroads into having voters support him for president," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll. "In fact, the president is losing by an even larger margin."

About 57% of likely voters disapproved of Bush's general job performance, a slight uptick from 55% a month ago. But the sentiment was more intense, with 50% saying they "strongly disapproved" of Bush, up from 45% a month ago.

At the same time, strong support for Kerry also grew, with 31% of likely voters declaring that they had a very favorable impression of him, up from 25% one month ago. The state's subtle transition was echoed by Larkin.

"I started out voting against Bush, but the more I've listened to Kerry or read about him, the more I'm voting for Kerry," Larkin said. "He's very much aware of other parts of the world. I think he is more respected internationally, and that's primarily because he has respect for other countries."

The Times Poll interviewed 1,345 registered voters from Oct. 14 to 18. Among them, 925 were deemed likely to vote on Nov. 2.

According to the poll, voters are keenly interested in the election regardless of California's position on the electoral sidelines. Almost four in five voters said they were very interested in the election, a sentiment shared by members of both major political parties. At about the same time in 2000, a much smaller 56% of likely voters described themselves as very interested.

The war in Iraq was named by 44% of likely voters as the most important issue the next president faces. Broken down along party lines, the war was the top concern among 52% of Democrats but just 35% of Republicans. Similarly, 56% of liberals listed the war as the top issue, compared with 36% of conservatives.

Scott Dowdle, who works in newspaper distribution in the Bay Area, said he was infuriated by the toll the Iraq war is taking on American troops -- both killed and wounded. And he was similarly distressed over what he saw as a terror backlash against civil rights.

"I'm just appalled with the direction the country is going," said Dowdle, 49, a Teamster who considers himself to be a political liberal who dislikes Bush even more than he supports Kerry. "Mostly, I'm just astounded with what has been going on."

Pinkus said the poll found Californians differing from the nation overall, where there is suspicion over Kerry's ability to lead.

"Kerry is perceived by California voters deemed likely to vote as the candidate who will be a strong leader for the country," Pinkus said, adding that voters here believe Kerry "is more likely to develop a successful plan for achieving success in Iraq and shares the voters' moral values."

Apart from the war issue, the parties took decidedly different views on which were the most pressing topics. Democrats cited the other top issues as the economy, healthcare, education and terrorism. Republicans listed terrorism, the economy, immigration and healthcare. Overall, 33% listed the economy as the second-most-pressing issue, 22% listed healthcare and 18% listed terrorism.

Nagging Concerns

Despite Kerry's advances, some voters remained supportive of Bush and despairing that either candidate would offer solutions to their concerns.

Mia Moyer, a 39-year-old self-employed Riverside County bookkeeper and single mother of an 8-year-old girl, voted for Bush in 2000 as "the lesser of two evils," and likely will vote for him again unless Kerry persuades her that he has solutions for Iraq and such domestic issues as the healthcare crisis.

"If Kerry would say something other than, 'I have a plan,' if he would tell me what the plan is, then I would be willing to listen," said Moyer, for whom access to healthcare is the top concern. "I don't think either one of them has a good plan. Neither one of them is addressing the bottom line problem that caused the whole thing -- the cost of healthcare."

On the bellwether question of whether the nation was generally on track, 58% of likely voters said it was not, a number that rose to 83% among Democrats and 66% among independents. Among Republicans, 75% believed the nation was headed in the right direction.

"I think we made a big mistake voting George Bush in as president in the first place," said Democrat Patricia Perry, 66, a Santa Clara high school teacher. "He doesn't know what he's doing," she said, adding that invading Iraq was "a disastrous thing to do."

That doesn't mean, though, that Perry is ready to back the Democratic candidate, whose support for abortion rights and stem cell research conflicts with her Catholic views. That has left Perry with a difficult conundrum: Does her vote follow her moral compass, or what she thinks is best for a nation she believes Bush has ensnared in an unnecessary war?

"It is difficult," said Perry, who cast a write-in vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, in California's March Democratic primary. "I've looked at [Kerry] for a long time, but the more I'm delving into his record, I'm not so sure about him."

California has never been fertile ground for Bush. His broad loss in 2000 came despite spending millions on television ads. He has not repeated that strategy this time and the poll showed why: He was in trouble with nearly every demographic group in the survey. Kerry led among whites and Latinos, men and women and those with college degrees. Bush did, however, receive support from 32% of California Latinos, up from 23% registered in California exit polls in 2000.

There were some silver linings for Bush in the Times poll. He led among those who described themselves as non-Catholic Christians, of whom 56% backed the president. And 52% of those who said they attended church services at least once a week went for Bush, too.

Bush also led among white men -- 54% to Kerry's 43% -- and in inland areas, with 53% of likely voters. But Kerry was favored by 63% of coastal voters and even led among likely voters living in households with veterans or active-duty military personnel -- a group that Bush has won nationally.

Issue Is the Thing

For some voters, picking a candidate has come down to picking an issue.

Christopher Chavkin, who works in customer service for a Bay Area tech firm, said he would probably vote for Kerry if he believed, come election day, that the war in Iraq or domestic social issues, such as stem cell research, were the most important. He supported the decision to go to war but disagrees with how Bush has managed Iraq policy since then, and believes Bush has polarized the nation.

But if he believes on Nov. 2 that national security is the predominant concern, he will vote for Bush -- as he did in 2000.

"The only reason I'm confused is I really do think Bush would do a better job of protecting homeland security," said Chavkin. "Republicans are more about defense spending and asking that we keep our country safe."

In a measure of how much the fight for the White House has captured voters' interest, nearly two out of three likely voters said they watched all three presidential debates and 89% said they had watched at least one.

The debates took a toll on the president: About four in 10 said they were less likely to vote for Bush because of his performance, and only one in 10 was more likely to vote for the president afterward.

Conversely, more than four in 10 said the debates made them more likely to support Kerry, and less than one in 10 said the debates made them less likely to support him.

Paul Orozco, a marketer from Temecula, was among the minority whose interest in Kerry ebbed after the debates. He thought Kerry was arrogant, and remains undecided but leaning toward the candidate he supported in 2000 -- Bush.

"I'm not convinced he has a solution for the situation we got ourselves in, nor am I convinced that Kerry has a defined, clear plan," Orozco said.

He added that he was "still waiting" for a surprise in the next 12 days -- such as a sudden success or failure in Iraq -- that would seal his vote.

"I'll decide possibly at the polls," he said, "the day of reckoning."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Down to the wire

Results among likely California voters:

General election matchup

*--* Now Sept. 2004 Bush/Cheney 40% 40% Kerry/Edwards 58% 55% Don't know 2% 5%

*--*

Presidential race among some demographic groups

*--* Kerry Bush Democrats 90% 8% Independents/Other 59% 35% Republicans 10% 89% Liberal Dems. 100% -- Moderate Dems. 77% 20% Moderate Reps. 34% 63% Conservative Reps. 2% 98% Men 52% 46% Women 63% 35% Whites 52% 46% Latinos 65% 32%

*--*

Q. Which phrase applies to John F. Kerry or George W. Bush?

*--* Kerry Bush Neither Both Strong leader for the country 49% 42% 4% 3% Has honesty and integrity to serve as president 51% 38% 7% 4% Best at keeping country safe from terrorism 42% 43% 8% 4% Better ideas for strengthening nation's economy 58% 35% 5% 0% Will develop a plan for achieving success in Iraq 52% 41% 4% --

*--*

Q. Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?

Worth going to war 38%

Not worth going to war 58%

Numbers may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

-- indicates a value of 0.5% or less.

How the poll was conducted

The Los Angeles Times Poll contacted 1,694 California adults by telephone Oct. 14 to 18, 2004. That includes 1,345 registered voters, and among them, 925 that were deemed most likely to vote in the November election. Respondents' intention to vote, the certainty of their vote, their interest in the campaign, whether they will be a first-time voter and past voting history were used to determine their probability of voting. Telephone numbers for the overall sample were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers were contacted. The sample of all California adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and party registration figures from the secretary of state's office. The margin of sampling error for all registered voters and likely voters is plus or minus three percentage points. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

Source: Times Poll

Rebecca Perry Los Angeles Times

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