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In California, Voters Stay in Kerry’s Corner

Times Staff Writer

California voters remain strongly in favor of ousting President Bush and replacing him with Sen. John F. Kerry despite Bush’s recent gains in popularity nationwide, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Voters likely to cast ballots in the Nov. 2 election support the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, over Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by 55% to 40%, the poll found. Just 5% are undecided. Most recent national polls have the Republican ticket leading by varying margins.

With independent Ralph Nader in the race, Kerry’s margin of victory narrows slightly, but he still beats Bush in a 53%-to-40% romp, with 2% of likely voters favoring the former consumer advocate. Nader, who won nearly 4% of the California vote in 2000, will not appear on the state’s ballot this time, but supporters are trying to qualify him as a write-in candidate.

On the Iraq war, terrorism and the economy, Bush’s ratings in California have edged downward since spring, the survey found.

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Overall, Bush’s popularity among California voters hovers near the lowest level of his presidency: 43% approve of his job performance, and 55% disapprove. By comparison, 67% approve of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job performance, according to the poll.

With the election less than six weeks away, the findings suggest that California is all but locked down as one of the most solidly Democratic states in the race for the White House -- confirming why both major parties have virtually ignored the state as voting nears. In the country’s other Democratic bastion, New York, Kerry also leads Bush but by a smaller margin.

For California voters, the war in Iraq ranks as the top issue in the campaign, to Bush’s detriment. The poll and follow-up interviews with respondents show that disapproval of Bush’s conduct of the war is a key factor driving voter dissatisfaction with his presidency.

“He got us into this war under false pretenses,” said Republican Gordon Weaver, 75, a retired Huntington Beach aerospace worker who backs Kerry. Bush “refuses to acknowledge that we went there in error, and he has no idea of how to get out of the situation. He coats it with sugar when everybody’s saying it’s a disaster.”

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The poll found that 60% of likely voters disapprove of the way Bush has handled the Iraq war, 58% say it will not make the world safer, and 56% see it as not worthwhile. On the question of which candidate would more likely develop a plan for achieving success in Iraq, Kerry holds an edge over Bush.

Still, the poll reflected a number of challenges facing Kerry, who has slumped in recent national surveys after months of Republican attacks. Forty percent of likely California voters have an unfavorable impression of Kerry. By a wide margin, they name Kerry as the candidate who tends to flip-flop, echoing the central Bush allegation against him.

Kerry “seems to switch his opinions a lot, and I don’t like that,” said Vista nonpartisan voter Laura Bustos, 25, who provides care for the disabled and leans toward Bush. “He voted for the war. Now he’s against the war. It just doesn’t seem like he’s very set on what he wants to do.”

Bush also has maintained some strength when it comes to the broader fight against terrorism -- though it is relative, with voters split over who would keep the country more secure. In national polls, voters have been firmly in Bush’s corner on the issue.

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California voters remain relatively unfamiliar with Kerry’s agenda. Most say Bush has provided a more detailed plan than Kerry for policies he would pursue in the next four years.

Nonetheless, the poll found a broad foundation of Kerry support in California, anchored by the nearly nine in 10 Democrats who favor him over Bush. Kerry is backed by most liberals, women, Latinos and African Americans, Catholics, residents of coastal areas and younger voters. More than two-thirds of likely voters from 18 to 44 years old support Kerry over Bush.

Bush, backed by more than eight in 10 Republicans, has also maintained a solid base in California. Among Bush’s strongest supporters: conservatives, gun owners, white men, Christians who are not Catholic, voters who attend religious services at least once a week and -- marginally -- those who live in inland parts of California.

At a time when the cost of prescription drugs is a major campaign issue, Bush also holds the support of a slight majority of likely voters who are at least 65 years old.

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For many Bush supporters, difficulties in Iraq and the economy have not dented their support.

“President Bush’s character is good,” said Neil Farrell, 43, a Morro Bay Republican who writes for a weekly community newspaper. “As far as foreign policy goes, he seems dedicated to a certain course of action.”

Farrell hopes for a quick U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. “I trust Bush to do that,” he said.

But Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by 1.3 million voters, and key findings in the poll illustrate other formidable obstacles that Bush faces in the state. Chief among them: Moderate voters, the backbone of any winning candidacy, favor Kerry by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Nearly a third of moderate Republicans plan to cross party lines to vote for Kerry.

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Also, Bush remains hobbled by an enormous gender gap in California despite national polls showing Kerry losing the Democrats’ traditionally strong advantage among women. In California, likely women voters back Kerry over Bush, 60% to 36%. Men, who favor Bush in national polls, are evenly split in California.

On a range of personal qualities, likely California voters favor Kerry over Bush. They lean toward Kerry on questions of which one has the honesty and integrity to serve as president, “cares about people like me,” “shares my moral values” and would be a strong leader.

On the economy, which likely voters name as the second-most important issue for the candidates to address, voters say Kerry has better ideas for making it stronger. Barely four in 10 voters approve of Bush’s job performance on the economy, and 57% disapprove.

“It was better when Clinton was in,” said Democrat Louise Alicia, 60, a retired Butte County bookkeeper. “Plants are closing up, going to other countries. That’s not good.”

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Bush’s numbers on terrorism are slightly better, if not up to his national numbers.

Nearly half of likely California voters say his policies on terrorism and national security have made the country more secure. Voters are roughly split between whether he or Kerry would keep the country safe from terrorism over the next four years.

“He’s a strong leader, took a position after 9/11 and stuck to it, and hasn’t wavered,” said Republican Jack Reynolds, 60, a newly retired Upland insurance claims adjuster.

Still, 52% of likely California voters disapprove of Bush’s performance on terrorism.

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More broadly, the survey found 60% of likely voters believe that the country is not better off because of Bush’s policies, and that it needs to move in a new direction.

As for the candidates’ running mates, Edwards is far more popular than Cheney, the poll found. Among likely voters in California, 58% have a favorable impression of Edwards, and just 26% rate him unfavorably. By contrast, the vice president is rated favorably by 40%, while 56% have a negative impression of him.

“If something happened to Bush, I’d be real concerned with Cheney in charge,” said Elaine Perry, 48, a nonpartisan San Diego County teacher leaning toward Kerry.

Overall, the dynamic in the California presidential race appears nearly frozen since the last Times statewide poll in April. Among registered voters at the time -- the April survey did not isolate likely voters -- Kerry held a 10-point lead over Bush, with 6% favoring Nader. In the new poll, Kerry’s margin among registered voters is 15 points, with 3% siding with Nader.

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The current poll also found little sign of potential change in the campaign’s final weeks. A striking 94% of likely voters who back Bush or Kerry say they are certain of their votes, with just 6% open to changing their minds.

The survey, supervised by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,320 registered voters from Sept. 17 to Sept. 21. Among them were 861 deemed likely to vote. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Voters view the presidential race

Q. If the election was being held today, for whom would you vote?

*--* Bush/ Kerry/ Cheney Edwards Undecided All likely voters 40% 55% 5% Democrat 8% 88% 4% Republican 83% 11% 5% Men 46% 47% 6% Women 36% 60% 4% Coastal counties 36% 60% 3% Inland counties 49% 43% 8%

*--*

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Q. What is the most important problem for the next president to address? (top 4 responses*)

Iraq war: 43%

Economy: 38%

Terrorism: 21%

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Healthcare: 15%

* Two responses allowed

Q. What do you think of President Bush handling of:

*--* Approve Disapprove His job as president 43% 55% The situation in Iraq 39% 60% The war on terrorism 46% 52% The economy 41% 57%

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*--*

Q. Do you think this country is better off because of George W. Bush’s policies and should continue in the direction he set out?

*--* Continue Proceed in Bush’s policies new direction All likely voters 37% 60% Democrat 9% 90% Republican 73% 20% Men 43% 54% Women 32% 65%

*--*

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Q. Do these phrases apply more to George W. Bush, John F. Kerry, neither, or both?

*--* Bush Kerry Neither Both Cares about people like me 34% 49% 10% 4% Strong leader for the country 42% 47% 6% 3% Has honesty and integrity to serve as president 39% 47% 5% 5% Flip-flops on the issues 27% 47% 8% 12% Best at keeping country safe from terrorism 42% 41% 7% 3% Better ideas for strengthening nation’s economy 38% 48% 6% 2% Shares my moral values 40% 44% 7% 2% More likely to develop plan for achieving success in Iraq 42% 46% 7% 1% Provided detailed plan for policies he would pursue in the next four years 44% 32% 15% 2%

*--*

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

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*--* Worth going to war Not worth it All likely voters 40% 56% Men 48% 50% Women 34% 60% 18-44 31% 66% 45-64 43% 53% 65+ 45% 50%

*--*

Q. Do you think that U.S. military action against Iraq will make the world a safer place, or not?

*--* A safer place Not a safer place All likely voters 37% 58% Men 44% 53% Women 31% 62% 18-44 22% 76% 45-64 41% 54% 65+ 43% 49%

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*--*

Q. Over the past three years, do you think George W. Bush’s policies on terrorism and national security have made the country more secure?

*--* More Less No secure secure difference All likely voters 48% 31% 18% Men 52% 29% 17% Women 45% 33% 19% 18-44 40% 38% 18% 45-64 49% 30% 18% 65+ 54% 26% 19%

*--*

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Source: Times Poll

Note: All results are among likely voters statewide. Some questions may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

How the poll was conducted

The Los Angeles Times Poll contacted 1,627 California adults by telephone Sept. 17 through 21. Among that group, 1,320 were registered voters, including 861 who were deemed likely to vote in the November election. A likely-voter screen was used to determine the highly probable voters, which included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign, whether respondent was a first-time voter and some questions on voting history. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random 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 3 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.

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Times Poll data-management supervisor Claudia Vaughn contributed to this report.

For more poll results, go to www.latimes.com/timespoll.


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