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Gov. still popular among voters

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to enjoy high approval ratings among voters even as most think the state is heading in the wrong direction, a new poll shows.

The grim financial picture the governor presented last week, including proposed steep cuts to schools, healthcare programs and other state services, has not hurt his standing with Californians. He enjoys the approval of 60% of registered voters, according to a Times/CNN/Politico poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. immediately after he unveiled the proposals as part of his blueprint for closing a $14.5-billion budget deficit. Interviews were conducted Friday through Sunday.

“He still rides the wave of the outsider trying to shake up the entrenched forces of government,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of communications at Cal State Sacramento. “Voters really don’t like the Legislature and tend to blame it for the state’s problems, given the opportunity. They assume the governor is doing his best in an intractable situation.”

Schwarzenegger’s personal appeal seems to have insulated him from voter pessimism about the direction the state is heading. The poll shows that 58% of respondents think the state is on the wrong track. The negative outlook cuts across party lines.

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Poll respondent Susan Erickson of Valencia, a Democrat who recently retired from her job as a supply chain manager after 35 years in the aerospace industry, said she was troubled by the governor’s plan for balancing the budget but did not blame the state’s fiscal problems entirely on him.

“He seems to have been more of a moderate than I expected,” she said. “He is intelligent, and he has this image that I suppose is good for our state.”

The generally gloomy outlook that voters have for the state, experts say, is more likely related to problems they blame on federal government mismanagement: the sub-prime loan crisis, stock market declines, a possible recession, the Iraq war.

But the governor’s ability to maintain high marks from voters throughout a protracted fiscal crisis is far from certain. On Thursday, he unveiled his proposal for balancing the state’s books. It includes releasing as many as 50,000 prisoners early, closing 48 state parks and cutting school spending by hundreds of dollars per child.

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Schwarzenegger’s vow to erase the deficit without new taxes may not sit well with voters, the poll suggests. Slightly more than half of registered voters would rather see the state collect new revenue than cut too deeply into government services.

“It surprises me it is that hard for a state this large to raise $14 billion,” said respondent Bill Baker, an Irvine attorney and Democrat who recently moved to the state from Texas. “It is a rounding error on the Iraq war. . . . There are a lot of places the state could go to get that money. You could tax lottery sales. Tax liquor sales. Junk food. All the things people don’t like.”

“State services already seem to be pared down to the bare minimum,” Baker said. “I get on the 5 Freeway and it looks like a Third World country. Signs are patched over. The landscaping is a wreck.”

But the governor’s anti-tax approach remains popular with Republican voters, 57% of whom want to see the budget balanced with cuts alone.

“The government spends way too much money,” said Sue Miller, 81, of the Central Coast town of Nipomo. “I think teachers make too much money. I think the whole system is so overblown, and all they want is more.”

The last time Schwarzenegger championed proposals that threatened permanent cuts in money for schools and other services, his approval rating took a beating. That was in 2005.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, notes that voters remained pleased with Schwarzenegger in the weeks after he unveiled those plans -- much as they do today, following the release of his tough budget blueprint. In 2005 it was months later, after the details sank in and opponents had organized their campaign against the governor, that Schwarzenegger’s approval rating sank to 37%.

“We’re following the same pattern that we did in January of 2005,” Baldassare said. “When he rolled out his plans, they were surprising to a lot of people and not what they wanted, but they didn’t initially take it out on him. As he started getting attacked by teachers and interest groups, his numbers fell.”

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Although the governor may face difficulty selling most voters on his budget cuts, his plan aimed at bringing health insurance to nearly all Californians is a hit, supported by 57% of registered voters.

“People without insurance are getting sick and showing up in the emergency rooms,” said Tim Nicholson, a 43-year-old San Jose Republican who was laid off from his job at a semiconductor company Tuesday. “The cost winds up being much higher. Somebody is paying for it, whether it is the users of the medical system or taxpayers, through Medi-Cal and Medicare.”

In the survey, 1,205 California adults were interviewed under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus; 1,054 of those were registered voters. The margin of sampling error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

evan.halper@latimes.com


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