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California Republicans get behind Mitt Romney

Republican voters in California have swung behind Mitt Romney, with the national presidential front-runner crushing his rivals by double digits and substantially expanding his support in the state, a new poll has found.

Romney won 42% of registered Republican voters, with his closest rival, Rick Santorum, trailing by 19 points, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were a distant third and fourth.

Romney’s support has risen by 15 points since a November USC/Times poll, when Herman Cain was his closest competitor. (The former businessman has since dropped out.)

Yet there remains a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the Republican field. Half of GOP voters said they wished other candidates were running for president.

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Barbara Foley, a 73-year-old Republican, said she would prefer former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Rep.Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. She decided to vote for Romney by process of elimination — she says Santorum is too socially conservative, Gingrich is smart but a “loose cannon,” and Paul — “well, I just think he’s nuttier than a fruitcake.”

“I vote the lesser of two evils, unfortunately,” said the Alpine retiree, who deeply disapproves of President Obama, notably his healthcare law, and fears the nation has grown increasingly socialist under his watch. “Mitt Romney is the lesser of the evils.”

The poll, conducted for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, comes less than three months before California holds its primary, a late contest that has loomed as potentially important as the GOP nomination battle continues.

Although Romney appears headed to a romp on June 5, when the pool of voters will be limited to registered Republicans, his prospects against Obama in the fall remain dim, the poll found. Obama led Romney by 21 points and the other candidates by even more — Paul by 28 points, Santorum by 29 and Gingrich by 32.

Nearly 6 in 10 voters surveyed said they approved of the president’s job performance, a increase of 7 points since the last USC/Times poll in November. And 62% said they had a favorable impression, a figure that soared to 73% among Latinos, one of the state’s key electoral groups.

Voters had a negative impression of all of the Republican candidates, in contrast. Romney ranked highest, with 37% saying they had a favorable view of him. For Paul it was 30%, Santorum 28% and Gingrich 25%.

California voters, who had cooled somewhat toward Obama, now give him improved marks on such issues as his handling of the economy, jobs and taxes. While they remain concerned about the state’s economy, voters indicated growing faith in the national recovery. That was particularly true among independents, a key constituency for Obama.

“They see a strong national economy and they appear to be giving the president credit for that,” said pollster Stanley B. Greenberg of the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the survey with the Republican firm American Viewpoint.

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A warning sign was evident in Obama’s handling of escalating gas prices. Nearly two-thirds of voters disapproved of his response, making it the area in which he fared the poorest. While the issue has yet to dramatically affect his standing in California, Obama’s campaign has indicated its concern about the long-term impact of gas prices; last week the president touted his energy policies at events in four states.

Michelle Fischer, an accountant from South San Francisco, said her family had to cut out movies, dining out and luxury purchases because of their $500 weekly bill for gas. (Her husband commutes 80 miles a day.) But though she is disappointed in Obama’s handling of gas prices, she strongly approves of his overall job performance and plans to vote for him in November.

“I think he’s doing the best he can. I really do. I think his hands are tied with what he inherited,” said the 50-year-old registered Democrat. “I don’t think he’s the only one who caused it; it’s not just one person. Everybody is part of it, and I think maybe the oil companies are more at fault than the government.”

The fact that the issue has spurred dissatisfaction in California, where support for Obama is strong, suggests it could have a more substantial impact in more-competitive states, according to poll director Dan Schnur.

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“Gasoline prices would probably have to hit $20 a gallon to put Obama in serious trouble here in California,” said Schnur, who heads USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “But if voters in a deep-blue state like this one are that unhappy with the way he’s handling this issue, it should be a big warning as to what his campaign is going to have to deal with in Ohio or Florida.”

The first Republican candidate to seize on gas prices was Gingrich, but the former House speaker has not reaped a benefit. In the November poll he was among Romney’s chief rivals for the nomination, but he is now attracting the support of 12% of the state’s GOP voters. Paul, the Texas congressman, finished last with 10%. The poll surveyed 1,500 registered voters by phone between March 14 and 19. The survey has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points in either direction.

Romney’s gains in recent months came across the board. The former Massachusetts governor leads in nearly every demographic group, with his greatest support coming from Los Angeles County and the Bay Area. He wins nearly every age group and educational level, except voters ages 18 to 29, who favor Paul with 30% of their vote to Santorum’s 21% and Romney’s 20%, and voters who did not attend college, among whom Romney ties Santorum at 30%.

Because California will award most of its delegates by congressional district, there are opportunities for Romney’s rivals to focus their efforts geographically. In the Central Valley, for example, Santorum beats Romney by 5 points.

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Marten Verhoeven, a consultant from Hanford, said he was drawn to Santorum because of the former Pennsylvania senator’s socially conservative values and his opposition to overly burdensome regulations. Verhoeven said he experienced layers of bureaucracy every day while helping farmers and dairymen comply with regulations.

Santorum “is about the most logical one. I think his environmental views are about what’s best for our country right now in these times,” the 51-year-old Republican said. “This president really scares me.”

Nothing in the poll, however, suggested that Santorum had a realistic chance to catch Romney, with his sophisticated campaign machine and flush war chest — and commanding lead in the delegate race.

“The race is moving towards Romney being the GOP nominee,” said Linda DiVall of the Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. And, she added, “Romney’s increased hold on delegates begins to create the sentiment of getting on board with the winner.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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