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Poll gap doesn’t dim GOP hopes

Times Staff Writer

With 39 days to go before the presidential election, California Republicans meet in Anaheim today in a familiar position -- voicing public optimism about their chances while privately hoping for lightning to strike.

As delegates traveled to their fall convention, polls caught the presidential contest in California in stark relief: Republican John McCain is losing to Democrat Barack Obama by double digits, about the same margin as the GOP candidates in the last four presidential contests here. Earlier polls showed a similar gap between the two candidates.

No one expects California to play a key role in the electoral college math, barring a complete reshaping of the presidential contest in the remaining days before votes are cast. The convention agenda itself underscores California’s lack of import to the major party combatants: the chief speechmakers over the three-day meeting are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost the nomination to McCain, and former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose previous convention visits included his effigy being tarred and feathered by activists.

“The sheer numbers -- the demographics, the trends for the top-of-the-ticket races -- have certainly been in favor of the Democrats,” said Mark Baldassare, who directed the Public Policy Institute of California poll that this week found Obama ahead 50% to 40%.

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The enthusiasm of Republican activists has been bolstered by the presence of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the ticket, but the GOP is being battered by disturbing and related trends as it looks toward November.

Short-term, the party has been losing the battle to register new voters. Since September 2004, Democratic ranks have increased by more than 347,000 voters, while the number of Republicans has slumped by almost 239,000.

The statistics in the last year are even more striking: Since last September, Democrats have added more than half a million voters, while Republicans have lost more than 27,000.

Democrats appear to be doing particularly well among a burgeoning army of younger voters and Latinos.

Among California voters, 43.9% are Democrats and 32.3% are Republicans.

That movement dovetails with another development of concern to both parties but particularly troublesome for Republicans: The ranks of those who register without allying with a particular party -- “decline-to-state” voters -- are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

Those voters -- now about 1 in 5 of registered Californians -- are far more likely to side with Democrats on the ballot, with the exception of their affinity for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For Republicans, the electoral changes have translated into successive defeats at the presidential level since 1988. This year, while not exactly predicting defeat in California, they are not exactly predicting victory either.

“The party base is really energized right now,” said Los Angeles County Republican Party chief Linda Boyd, who said Palin’s presence on the ticket has been particularly welcome.

“They have a great belief that McCain is going to win nationally. They’re not so confident that he is going to win in California,” Boyd said.

The poll bore out Palin’s effect on Republican enthusiasm. According to Baldassare, 35% of Republicans, pre-Palin, said they were satisfied with their presidential choices. This month, with her aboard, that figure zoomed to 67%. But the near doubling of enthusiasm has not translated into a boost for the ticket’s chances. In effect, it thrilled those already committed to McCain, but did not broaden the pool of voters in his camp.

Still, it helps to have volunteers streaming into GOP offices seeking to buy up life-sized cutouts of Palin, just to take pictures with them.

One man recently offered $100 for one, Boyd said.

McCain has consistently said that he would contest California -- no candidate but a doomed one would suggest otherwise.

He is tentatively scheduled to visit the state next week, and Palin is penciled in for a two-day visit in the first week of October.

But few expect the campaign to commit to the expense of television ads, the chief form of political communication in the state.

Andrea Jones, McCain’s California director, said that the campaign hopes to use the convention as an “opportunity to educate” volunteers about the November get-out-the-vote operation.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, is openly saying it does not expect to air ads in California. In its case, that is a sign of confidence. Since losing the primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama and his backers have worked to unite Democrats and take advantage of the energy of their youthful shock troops.

Tens of thousands of Obama supporters have made phone calls and contributed to the campaign’s vast computerized voter database. So many volunteers have flooded into Obama’s 10 state offices that some have been diverted to other states, including next-door Nevada, the nearest state under assault by both McCain and Obama.

“We have the luxury that we have so many volunteers, and some want to help in the battleground states,” said Obama’s California director, Mitchell Schwartz.

Still, the focus remains here, where campaign workers and volunteers are trying to make sure that new voters register and registered voters vote.

But “first and foremost is California,” Schwartz said. “We have to win here.”

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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