A collapse in support for Texas Gov. Rick Perry has left Mitt Romney as the clear front-runner in California's Republican presidential primary, but the former Massachusetts governor is still struggling to rally the party's most conservative voters, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found.
Businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have emerged as Romney's leading rivals, thanks largely to conservatives who have abandoned Perry but at this point are declining to back Romney. Among supporters of the tea party movement, Cain held a slight edge over Romney.
Conservatives' resistance to Romney in California reflects a problem that he faces nationwide. The challenge looms especially large for Romney in Iowa and South Carolina, where conservatives dominate nominating contests in January that will help determine his viability elsewhere.
In California, where the primary will be held in June, Romney led among Republican voters overall with 27%, followed by Cain at 20%, Gingrich at 14% and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 6%, according to the survey by The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Perry, who in August was tied with Romney in first place, plummeted to 3% in the poll. Also losing traction was Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who slid to 2%. Still languishing in last place were former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., both stalled at 1% even after six months of nationally televised debates.
"For the last year, we've seen a steady stream of conservative alternatives to Romney emerge, audition and fade away," said poll director Dan Schnur, who heads USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. He was alluding to Perry, Bachmann and Sarah Palin, who ultimately decided against running.
The GOP contest is far from settled: 22% of the Republicans surveyed have not decided whom to support. Most of those who picked a candidate said they were open to changing their minds.
Still, the California poll could reflect a peak in Cain's support. Since it was completed Nov. 9, Cain's standing in national polls has eroded in the aftermath of accusations that he sexually harassed four women in the 1990s when he led the National Restaurant Assn.
The 11-day survey also ended the same night as Perry's stumble in a Michigan debate, when he could not recall one of the three federal agencies he wants to abolish — so his implosion in California was complete even before that. Conservatives' enthusiasm for Perry vanished as opponents pounded him for supporting lower tuition for illegal immigrants at public universities in Texas.
On the Democratic side, President Obama remains well-positioned in California for the November 2012 general election, the survey found. In a hypothetical matchup, the state's voters favored Obama over Romney, 52% to 35%. By slightly wider margins, they supported Obama over Cain, and Obama over Perry.
While Democrats overwhelmingly favored Obama and Republicans strongly preferred a GOP challenger, the state's decisive bloc of nonpartisans heavily backed the president's reelection.
Obama's strength in California has persisted despite a brutal economic climate. For more than two years, the state's unemployment rate has hovered around 12%. Yet 48% of the voters surveyed agreed with the statement that it would be better for the U.S. economy if Obama were reelected, while 40% said the economy would do better if a Republican replaced him.
Rene Estrada, 38, an optician who lost his home in Orange to foreclosure after customers sharply cut spending on glasses, said he did not blame Obama for the downturn.
"This is not just any recession," Estrada, a Democrat who participated in the poll, said in a follow-up interview. "This was massive."
Obama's job approval rating has remained steady since August at 50%, with 42% now disapproving. The survey found the president was still strongly supported by women, younger voters, liberals, moderates, Latinos and African Americans.
Nonetheless, Obama's overall approval rating in California was down from 60% two years ago, and a plurality of white voters disapproved of his job performance.
"It's clear that California's enthusiasm for Barack Obama has cooled significantly over the last three years," Schnur said. "What's saving him here is the refusal of California voters to even consider Republicans as a viable alternative."
The survey, jointly conducted by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm American Viewpoint, questioned 1,500 registered voters from Oct. 30 through Nov. 9. The overall margin of sampling error was 2.5 percentage points in either direction.
As in many other states, Romney's main source of strength was moderate Republicans, who favor him over Cain by more than 2 to 1. But in California, as elsewhere, conservatives hold more sway than moderates in Republican primaries.
One of the most troublesome findings for Romney was that Cain was most popular among tea party supporters, who make up just over half of California Republicans. The survey found 29% of tea party backers support Cain, followed by Romney at 26%, Gingrich with 22% and Paul at 6%. In August, their preference — and that of conservatives overall — was for Perry over Romney.
One of Romney's main problems with conservatives has been that many see the healthcare overhaul he championed in Massachusetts as the model for Obama's. Others have questioned his rightward drift on abortion, gay rights and other issues as he migrated from liberal-leaning Massachusetts to the conservative realm of national Republican politics.
For tea party supporter Nicholas Chenarides, a retired Lakewood aerospace engineer who is leaning toward Cain because of his business background, the trouble with Romney is that he "flip-flops too much."
"I don't trust him," said Chenarides, a Republican. "I think he's telling people what they want to hear."
The poll also found a sharp partisan divide between tea party loyalists and supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A solid majority of Republicans viewed the tea party favorably and the Occupy Wall Street movement unfavorably, and vice versa for Democrats. About 3 out of 4 tea party supporters favor Romney over Obama, while 3 out of 4 Occupy Wall Street supporters favor Obama over Romney.
Dan DeShara, 54, a Bay Area Democrat who is leaning toward Obama, said the Occupy Wall Street protesters were right to take on banks, which he views as reckless culprits in the nation's economic downturn.
"People need to take to the streets, pull their money out, show banks they can't do what they've been doing," he said.