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Obama strongly leads GOP candidates in California poll

President Obama’s standing has slumped among California voters, but he holds an expansive lead over potential Republican opponents, including two who have leaped ahead of the GOP presidential pack in California, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were tied at 22% among Republican voters. Two others, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, were barely in double digits, and a parade of other candidates fell well behind.

The poll by The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences underscored the abrupt alterations in the Republican contest. Romney has been campaigning for the presidency for years; Perry had been in the race for mere days before vaulting into the shared lead in California.

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But the survey also showed that Obama’s strength in California has endured despite deep dissatisfaction among voters with the economy. In hypothetical matchups, Obama led Romney by 19 points, Perry by 24 points and Bachmann by 26 points.

By 50% to 43%, voters approved of Obama’s handling of the presidency, down from a high of 60% a year after his election. But the state’s three most potent voter groups — women, nonpartisan voters and Latinos — remained firmly in his corner. Fifty-five percent of women and nonpartisan voters were satisfied with the job the president is doing, a judgment shared by 59% of Latinos.

“Californians have growing concerns about the state of the economy and the president’s performance on economic matters, but they don’t see anyone on the Republican side who they are willing to support,” said poll director Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Perry and Romney, whose new rivalry is expected to be a focus of Wednesday’s presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, were splitting the GOP’s ideological wings. Among moderate Republican voters, Romney led Perry 26% to 13%. Among conservative Republicans, Perry led 28% to 22%.

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Those with opposing views on the “tea party” movement were likewise divided. Among tea party supporters, Perry led Romney 33% to 23%. Among its opponents, Romney led 21% to 8%.

Perry’s tea party support appeared to have come at the expense of two candidates earlier allied with those forces, Bachmann and Paul. Bachmann, who founded the House Tea Party Caucus, won 11% of those voters and 10% of Republicans overall, while Paul held 6% of tea party allies and 11% overall.

For the time being, voters with different motivations were drawing different conclusions about which GOP candidate to support. Those who said they wanted one with the best chance against Obama — 37% — sided narrowly with Perry. Among those who preferred a candidate who agreed with their views — 50% of the Republican electorate — Romney was narrowly ahead.

It is unclear whether Perry will be able to expand on his early support ahead of June’s state primary, or whether the poll captured the momentum that is naturally unleashed as a campaign is launched. Also unknown is whether Romney’s support — consistently in the low to mid-20s among many voter groups — represents a solid base to build on or a ceiling.

Some voters indicated they were leaning toward Perry even if they had just begun to learn about him.

“I think he’s done a really good job with Texas, and he seems straightforward and likable,” said Joyce Alden, a Republican and retired accountant from Sun City.

But Romney too had backers because of his business background and government experience.

“It’s the whole package,” said Jeffrey Hanson, a Republican from Suisun City who works as a property manager.

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Most of the Republican candidates were laboring against anonymity. Romney is the best known, but only 72% of Republican voters said they could identify him. About two-thirds of voters could identify Bachmann, even fewer Paul, and only 54% knew of Perry.

But being known was no assurance of popularity. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has pondered entering the race, was known to 92% of California Republicans, but almost two-thirds said that they had a negative impression of her. The strongest views were particularly lopsided: Only 10% of voters had a very favorable view of Palin, but 48% said they had a very unfavorable view.

Much of the animosity toward Palin and other Republicans appeared driven by the state’s Democratic tilt. A Republican presidential candidate last carried California in 1988; in 2008, Obama won in a landslide over GOP nominee John McCain.

Neither the economic downturn nor Obama’s slipping popularity had changed that dynamic markedly. Asked whether they preferred a Democratic or a Republican congressional candidate in a generic matchup, California voters chose the former by a 17-point margin.

Similarly, they held much harsher views about Republicans in Congress than about Democrats. Two-thirds felt negatively about the job being done by GOP members of Congress — only 27% felt favorably — while they were more upbeat about Democrats in Congress, with 41% approving.

Again, the middle-of-the road voters prized by both sides allied themselves with Democrats. Only 25% of nonpartisan voters — those registered outside a political party — approved of Republicans in Congress. But 44% approved of Democrats there.

Obama’s standing, even if weakened, was all the more striking given voters’ convincing dissatisfaction with the economy. When asked to judge the president on a range of issues, respondents were negative on economic matters such as jobs, the economy, the federal deficit and taxes. His only positive rating came on terrorism and — narrowly — on Medicare, and voters were split on his handling of healthcare.

Still, their views of Obama personally have not plummeted. In November 2009, voters had a 65% positive impression of him. Now, that figure is a relatively healthy, if diminished, 58%. The positive personal impression appears to have offset much of the decline that Obama might otherwise have suffered given the faltering economy.

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Sixty-two percent of women viewed him positively, and 35% negatively. Sixty-four percent of nonpartisans embraced Obama, while 33% did not. Latino voters were even more positive, with 70% holding a positive impression of Obama and 28% with negative views.

The president was the most popular politician measured in the poll. His occasional nemesis, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), had a 22% positive rating, 36 points lower than Obama’s.

“He’s trying to make things work on what he calls a bipartisan basis and he’s not getting any help,” said Democrat Mike Sexton of San Ramon, who works at a luxury car dealership.

The survey, conducted by the Republican firm American Viewpoint and the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, questioned 1,508 registered voters from Aug. 17 to 28. The overall margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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Results of the new University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll

cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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