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Brown gains slight edge on Whitman

Democrat Jerry Brown has moved into a narrow lead over Republican Meg Whitman in their fractious contest for governor, while his party colleague Barbara Boxer has opened a wider margin over GOP nominee Carly Fiorina in the race for U.S. Senate, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll has found.

The Democratic candidates were benefiting from their party’s dominance in California and the continued popularity here of President Obama, who has retained most of his strength in the state even as he has weakened in other parts of the country. Support for Obama may play a key role in the Senate contest, one of a handful nationally that could determine which party wins control of the chamber.

At the same time, the survey showed, Republicans Whitman and Fiorina have yet to convince crucial groups of voters that their business backgrounds will translate into government success.

Brown, the former governor and current attorney general, held a 49%-44% advantage among likely voters over Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive at EBay.

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Boxer, a three-term incumbent, led Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, by 51%-43% among likely voters in the survey, a joint effort by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Both Republicans were hamstrung by voters’ negative impressions of them -- particularly Whitman, who has poured a national record $119 million of her own money into an advertising-heavy campaign yet has seen her unpopularity rise, the survey showed.

Still, in this year of political tumult, the Democrats were facing stiff challenges too. As they do nationally, Republicans in California held a fierce edge in enthusiasm among likely voters. The poll defined likely voters based both on past voting history and enthusiasm about voting this year -- a measure that projects an election turnout that is more heavily Republican than is typical in California. If the Democratic turnout ends up being even more sharply depressed, that would put the party’s candidates at risk.

Brown, for example, trailed by 12 points among those most enthusiastic about voting this year. Boxer’s lead reversed to a 17-point deficit among the most enthusiastic voters.

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Defining the contours of the election was the state’s dire economic landscape, strewn with unemployment, home foreclosures and dysfunction in Sacramento. Only 8% of likely voters said California was headed in the right direction; 86% said it was on the wrong track.

“We’re really in a mess in California,” poll respondent Bonnie Kawasaki of Riverside said in a follow-up interview. “Nothing is getting done.”

Echoing that newly registered Democrat was Republican Tricia Johnson.

“We’re already in horrible times, but it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” said Johnson, who lives in the Placer County town of Loomis. “I feel like we’re losing our country, and California is leading the way.”

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Voters disappointed

Still, the poll found disappointment more than anger on the part of voters, by better than 2-1. The ratio contradicted what has been seen elsewhere, pollster Stan Greenberg said.

“This is not ‘tea party’ America,” he said.

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The Los Angeles Times/USC poll was conducted Sept. 15-22 by the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. More than 1,500 California voters were surveyed, among them 887 likely voters. The margin of sampling error for the likely voter sample was 3.3 points in either direction.

The tight contest for governor offered bragging rights to both candidates. Brown has withstood Whitman’s fusillade of negative advertising over the summer; the poll began only one week after Brown started airing his first television ads of the campaign. Whitman, for her part, had encroached upon the usual Democratic lead in California.

Still, Brown led among all three groups Whitman set out to conquer. Women were siding with him 51%-42%. Latinos backed him by a 20-point margin. Younger voters, typically a source of support for Democrats, were only narrowly in Brown’s corner, perhaps because most voters under 30 have little direct knowledge of him.

Whitman’s most recent ads have hit Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal who is incapable of creating the jobs that can lift California out of its economic doldrums. Neither argument appears to have made much of a dent so far. When asked which candidate was better on taxes, Whitman had a 3-point lead. She led on the economy, 46%-36%, but he had a 5-point edge on creating jobs.

The race appeared to be resting less on issue positions than on notions of character and personality, according to statistical analysis of which aspects of the poll were having the strongest impact on the outcome. Whitman led Brown when it came to traits that flow from her corporate experience -- she was judged better on having new ideas, energy, and decisiveness. She trailed significantly, however, when voters were asked which candidate understood them, and which could get the job done. And by a 2-1 ratio, voters said they wanted a governor who would be conciliatory rather than single-minded -- echoing the characterization Brown has made of himself and Whitman.

“There’s a downside that’s personal that has to do with empathy and unity,” Greenberg said. “It appears to be weakening her position.”

GOP pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint disputed that argument and said the results showed that Whitman’s background was “standing her in good stead.” Her fate, DiVall said, rests on two things:

“Can she continue to hold on and press her advantage with the most enthusiastic voters, and, two, can she garner more support among female voters?” DiVall asked. “Obviously, she’s competitive.”

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Indeed, if Whitman’s slings at Brown have failed to hit the mark, so too have Democratic criticisms of Whitman. Brown and his allies have repeatedly blistered her for the amount she is spending in the race, but voters were split over whether her largesse or Brown’s dependence on unions was more problematic. Similarly, they split when asked whether they worried more that Whitman would seek to benefit corporations or Brown unions. When asked whether they favored a governor with political experience or an outsider’s perspective, the tally was a narrow 49%-45% on the side of government experience.

Separately, neither candidate was blindingly popular. Forty-five percent of voters felt favorably -- and an identical percentage unfavorably -- about Brown. By comparison, Obama had a 60%-39% rating.

But Whitman’s standing was more troublesome at 37% favorable and 47% unfavorable. Among the state’s influential nonpartisan or “decline to state” voters, whose support is critical for Republicans, both candidates had negative impressions. But when forced to choose, those independent voters sided with Brown, 47%-41%.

Whitman has maintained a more moderate profile on issues than Fiorina, and was running far stronger among some key voter groups than her Republican ticket mate. On some issues that have been important in past races, the two have opposing views -- Fiorina, for example, supports expanded offshore oil drilling and opposes abortion while Whitman has tentatively opposed offshore drilling and supports some abortion rights. Fiorina’s more conservative positions appeared to be taking a toll: Among nonpartisans and among women, Whitman scored better.

With five weeks to go before election day, Boxer and Fiorina commanded strong majorities of their own parties, but Boxer won nonpartisans, 56%-34%.

But as with the race for governor, the Senate contest seemed to be driven not so much by specific issues, but the candidates themselves -- or voters’ perceptions of them. Voters were essentially split over which was better on the economy, immigration or taxes, although Boxer overrode Fiorina on the environment, 46%-25%.

Boxer’s strengths were, like Brown’s, on the empathy scale. She outdistanced Fiorina 44%-35% when voters were asked who best understood them; among nonpartisans the gap was 19 points. When asked which candidate shares voters’ values -- another traditional marker for successful candidates -- Boxer won 44%-34%.

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Obama supported

Fiorina has spent her campaign arguing that Boxer is an extremist who has accomplished nothing in Washington -- but voters partially repudiated those arguments. By a relatively narrow 39%-34%, likely voters identified Boxer as the candidate who was “too politically extreme.”

Nonetheless, asked who would be an effective voice in the Capitol, Boxer won 46%-37%. Most galling to Fiorina, perhaps, were the results when pollsters asked which candidate could bring the necessary change to Washington: three-term incumbent Boxer or first-time candidate Fiorina. Voters were split, 38%-40%.

But the major headwind against Fiorina may be the president. Fiorina has vowed if elected to work against the president’s agenda, yet California voters were unequivocal about their desire for a supportive senator. Among likely voters, 56% wanted Obama supported, and only 34% wanted a senator who would be an opponent.

One of Obama’s supporters was Jill Rolen of Fresno County, who said she was irked at criticism of him.

“I think he’s doing what he said he was going to do, however everyone wants him to flip a coin and everything’s going to be magically fixed,” she said. But her certainty ended there. A Democrat, she has yet to figure out which candidate to pick for governor or senator.

“I’m so undecided,” she said. “I see the commercials and I feel that’s a stupid way to decide. I want to know how it affects me.”

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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