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Voters still waiting to be won over

City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel are locked in a tie for the lead in the Los Angeles mayoral primary, but their chances of clinching spots in the May runoff rest with a huge swath of likely voters open to switching candidates before Tuesday’s vote, according to a new USC Price / Los Angeles Times poll.

The survey, taken last Sunday through Wednesday, found Garcetti at 27% and Greuel at a statistically even 25%. Bunched behind the two Democrats were Republican lawyer Kevin James at 15% and Democratic Councilwoman Jan Perry at 14%. Former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez trailed at 5%.

The survey showed that none of the major candidates has cultivated deep support among any of the big voter groups that can swing Los Angeles elections. (James has sparked enthusiasm among Republicans and conservatives, but those groups are too small by themselves to push a candidate to victory.)

The voters’ tentative embrace of the Democrats in the race makes the election climate highly volatile. The poll found 14% of likely voters hadn’t yet picked a candidate -- and of those who had, nearly half said they might still change their minds.

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Adding to the unpredictability is a new burst of TV and radio attack ads that could trigger late shifts in public opinion.

Despite months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, poll director Dan Schnur said, no one has yet captivated voters the way incumbent Antonio Villaraigosa did when he sought to become the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles or Richard Riordan did as a business-oriented outsider in the aftermath of the 1992 riots.

“Voters don’t appear to have very strong feelings about anyone who’s running or anything they’re talking about,” said Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh School of Politics at USC.

The USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll found that both Garcetti and Greuel have had limited success in building a base among the major constituencies they have targeted. Their similar records and Democratic views have left them in something of a middling stand-off.

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Garcetti, who often highlights his Mexican ancestry and fluent Spanish, has gained an edge among Latinos but remains a long way from the swell of Latino support that swept Villaraigosa into office.

Latinos favored Garcetti over Greuel, 37% to 19%. But close to a third of Latinos said they preferred other candidates, including Perry, 12%, and Pleitez, 11%.

In 2005, Villaraigosa won 64% of Latinos in the primary and 84% in the runoff, Times exit polls found.

Garcetti performed strongest -- although with barely a third of the respondents -- on the Eastside and in the central city, where he has represented the Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park areas on the council.

Greuel, a former council member who lives in Studio City, held a narrow advantage in the San Fernando Valley -- but also with less than a third of those surveyed.

The poll also found no traction yet from Greuel’s frequent appeals to women that she would make history as the city’s first female mayor. Among likely female voters, the two were essentially tied: Greuel, 26%, Garcetti, 25%, followed by Perry, 16%.

If she makes the runoff, however, Greuel can take solace in another finding: 28% of likely voters said, in response to a separate question, that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would be the first female mayor. Since those voters were not all backing Greuel now, she has upward potential, the pollsters suggested.

Respondents also appeared to like Greuel’s core message. Nearly 4 out of 5 said they would be more likely to vote for someone who pledges to root out government waste and fraud, as Greuel has promised in her advertising. That would bode well for her in a runoff that did not include James, as it is popular among Republicans who favor him in the primary.

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Still, those surveyed also reacted favorably to Garcetti’s argument that he deserves credit for budget and workforce cuts he pushed at City Hall after the recession hit. More than 7 in 10 said they would be more likely to vote for someone who had made tough budget choices to address the city’s financial challenges. Garcetti also holds advantages among liberals and younger voters.

In follow-up interviews, some likely voters who participated in the poll said the leading candidates had made little impression.

Lee Borisof, 69, a retired construction worker from Winnetka, said he backed Garcetti but knew almost nothing about him. “I don’t know what his opinions are,” Borisof said. “I don’t know how he manages things. I really have in my mind no sense of what kind of a job he’s going to do. He seems like a fairly responsible person, though.”

Others, including Brian Herres, 57, of Encino, were not fond of any candidate. He said he ruled out Greuel because he was turned off by “politicians who see savings in waste only,” and Garcetti was “not ready to be the guy in charge.” So Herres, who works in market research, opted reluctantly for Perry.

“She just seemed to emerge for me as the most genuine,” he said.

The telephone survey of 500 likely voters was conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters. It had a margin of sampling error of 4.4 percentage points in either direction, with wider margins for subgroups. The sample size for some pivotal voter groups, such as African Americans and Asians, was too small to draw conclusions about voter opinions.

“It is notable how much this race is still in flux a week out,” said pollster Amy Levin of Benenson Strategy Group, the Democratic firm on the team. Noting the “extremely high number” of respondents who said they might change their minds, she added, “It speaks to a lack of passion in a lot of ways in this race.”

The one limited exception was James and his strong following of Republicans, who prefer the former radio talk-show host and federal prosecutor over his rivals by double digits. James has played up his status as an outsider, saying he would clean up corruption at City Hall. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans say they prefer a mayor who is not a career politician to one with experience in elected office and knowledge of how City Hall works.

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Nancy Mansfield, an 86-year-old Republican who lives in Chatsworth, called James “a breath of fresh air.”

“Those people downtown, I think they’re all crooks,” said Mansfield, a retired registered nurse. “They’re all scratching each other’s backs.”

But among the broader group of all likely voters, more than half prefer a seasoned city official over an outsider. And James’ support beyond Republicans was weak.

“In the end, it’s going to be a tough mountain to climb for him,” said pollster Chris St. Hilaire of M4 Strategies, the Republican half of the survey team.

Overall, the mood of city voters was mixed, with 36% saying things in L.A. were going in the right direction and 48% saying they were off track. Far worse numbers had been common around the country in the depths of the economic downturn.

Respondents were also relatively optimistic about the future. Just 16% said they thought their personal economic situation next year would be worse, while 41% expected it to get better.

As Villaraigosa’s second and final term nears an end, his ratings were split, with 47% overall having a favorable impression and 44% unfavorable. He has remained more popular among Latinos: 60% held a favorable view of him, a sentiment shared by only 40% of whites.

Looking ahead to the next mayor, who will take office July 1, voters’ top priority was getting the city’s budget under control, followed by job creation and improving schools.

With the city facing a projected deficit, respondents said they preferred that budget cuts come from pension expenses for the city workforce, as well as from salaries and other administrative costs. A majority also supported denying future city workers guaranteed pensions, offering instead a 401(k)-style plan in which they invest part of their earnings for retirement.

Typically, those surveyed favor the trimming of government budgets but balk at cutting popular big-ticket items. In Los Angeles, too, they declined to sanction cuts to any of the city’s major responsibilities.

Only 21% favored cuts in libraries, parks, tree trimming, trash pickup, street repair and other basic services, and just 9% supported cutting the number of police officers, firefighters or 911 emergency dispatchers.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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