SURVEY SHOWS LEGAL POT BID FAILING

California's marijuana legalization ballot initiative, Proposition 19, is trailing badly, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll, which found likely voters opposing it 51% to 39%.

In the race for attorney general, Republican Steve Cooley holds a narrow lead over his Democratic opponent, Kamala Harris.

Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, is aided greatly by voter support on his usually Democratic home turf. In the survey, Cooley held a 42%-33% advantage among likely voters in Los Angeles County. Statewide, he had a 40%-35% edge among likely voters over Harris, who is the San Francisco district attorney.

Another Bay Area Democrat, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, has a slight lead in the race for lieutenant governor. Newsom was ahead of Republican Abel Maldonado, a former state senator from Santa Maria who was appointed lieutenant governor in April, 42% to 37%.

The marijuana legalization measure has led in most polls, but support has softened recently. The initiative's supporters, who are short on money, have not run the television advertisements that most political strategists say are essential to communicate with voters in a state the size of California.

"If voters don't see a compelling reason to vote for an initiative, the default is to vote against it," said Darry Sragow, the interim director of the Times/USC poll. "That may be happening here in the absence of a visible, compelling campaign." The poll indicates that "voters who are going to make the critical difference seem to be saying, 'I'm not ready to do this,' " he said.

Proposition 19, which needs a majority vote to pass, would allow Californians who are at least 21 to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana and possess up to an ounce. Cities and counties could authorize commercial cultivation and sales and could impose taxes.

The poll, conducted for The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, found the initiative favored by Democrats, 51% to 41%, and opposed by Republicans, 66% to 23%.

Men were evenly split, and women were leaning against it. Both sides consider mothers a key swing vote, with backers of legalization saying it would lead to regulations that would do more to keep pot from children, and opponents saying young people would have easier access and so more would use it.

Likely voters younger than 40 are in favor of Proposition 19 by 48% to 37%, but older voters are opposed, the poll found. Among likely voters 65 and over, only 28% support the measure, while 59% said they were opposed.

Poll respondent Nancy Bynes, 51, who is married with two adult children, said she smoked pot as a teen in the 1970s. A dog groomer who lives near Nevada City, she said she doesn't believe marijuana is dangerous and wants police to focus on serious crimes. "Go after the meth labs, please. Pot is not worth it," said Bynes, who switches her registration between parties.

But Shawn Lidtka, a single Democrat from Garden Grove and a mechanical engineering student at Cal State Fullerton, said he opposes legalizing marijuana because he believes the drug saps people of their ambition. "My goal is to be deeper into life, not diminish it," said the 28-year-old Army veteran.

Some polls have shown Latino voters, initially against legalization, swinging toward it, but the Times/USC poll found they are against it by 2 to 1. White voters also oppose the measure. Supporters of legalization have highlighted statistics showing members of minority groups are arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites.

In the two "down-ballot" races in the survey -- attorney general and lieutenant governor -- the biggest remaining wild card is a large pool of undecided voters. Seventeen percent of the likely voters still have not made up their minds for attorney general and 11% for lieutenant governor -- a common occurrence in these races, which receive considerably less voter attention than the contests for governor or U.S. Senate. In the governor's race, by contrast, only 4% of likely voters were undecided, the poll found.

Harris' campaign has focused heavily on her pro-environment agenda and a call for stepped-up efforts against financial crimes such as mortgage fraud and identity theft. She has strong support among Latinos and union members, as well as young voters between the ages of 18 and 44, the survey showed.

The two split almost evenly among California's decline-to-state voters and those who describe themselves as moderates. However, 22% of the Democrats who are likely to vote said they supported Cooley, a finding that probably reflects his popularity in the Los Angeles area. A veteran prosecutor largely seen as a moderate Republican, Cooley has won three D.A. elections in Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles County is home to one out of four registered voters in California and is a near must-win for any Democrat running statewide.

Women voters, who as a whole tend to vote Democratic, were evenly divided between the two, while men favored Cooley by a 10% margin.

"The advantage you have when you are the district attorney of the county of Los Angeles is that you get a lot press coverage every day just by doing your job. It's seen by anyone who watches L.A. television.... That media market accounts for 40% of the population of the state," Sragow said.

Harris holds nearly a two-to-one advantage over Cooley on her home territory in the Bay Area. Cooley enjoys an edge in most of the rest of the state, including the Central Valley, the Central Coast and the inland territory from Sacramento north.

In contrast with Harris, Newsom in the lieutenant governor's race crushes Maldonado in Los Angeles County by more than a two-to-one margin. As is often the case, however, the Republican is stronger throughout the rest of Southern California.

Maldonado also has made inroads among fellow Latinos, chipping away a pool of voters that have traditionally backed Democrats. Newsom still has a 10% advantage among likely Latino voters. But nearly a third of the those Latinos polled backed Maldonado -- close to the level of support that political strategists say a Republican candidate needs to win statewide.

The poll surveyed 1,501 registered voters by telephone, including cellphones and landlines, between Oct. 13 and Oct. 20. The sample included 922 likely voters. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points; for the likely voter sample it is 3.2 points.

The sample for Proposition 19 included 441 likely voters; the margin of error is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. The Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint conducted the survey.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

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