Meg Whitman                         Carly Fiorina

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LOS ANGELES TIMES/USC POLL

Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

May 29, 2010 | 6:35 p.m.

After plummeting in recent polls, Republican Meg Whitman has regained her commanding lead in the race for governor over her primary opponent Steve Poizner, but their contentious assaults have helped reverse the general election edge she once held over Democrat Jerry Brown, a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll has found.

Whitman leads Poizner 53% to 29%, with less than two weeks to go before the June 8 primary, the poll found. But head to head against Brown, she trails 44% to 38%.

The former EBay chief executive, making her first bid for public office, led by 40 points in the last Times/USC survey in March. She then saw her popularity fall under a withering ad bombardment from Poizner, who has accused her of being too liberal on illegal immigration, struck at her failure to vote for much of her adult life and criticized her association with controversial investment bank Goldman Sachs. Polls earlier in May showed her with only a narrow lead. But she has rebounded thanks, in part, to a renewed ad barrage of her own.

In the primary’s other highlight, the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Carly Fiorina has vaulted into a clear lead over her main primary opponent Tom Campbell, 38% to 23%. In third was Chuck DeVore at 16%. In March, Campbell had a narrow lead over Fiorina.

Although behind in the primary race, Campbell was the only Republican beating Democrat Barbara Boxer in a general election matchup, 45% to 38%. Boxer, a three-term incumbent whom the poll showed is vulnerable, was defeating Fiorina by 6 points and DeVore by 10.

The two races are being played out against a backdrop of intense voter upset, both nationally and in California. Only 7% of Californians told pollsters that the state was on the right track. Eighty-two percent said it was headed in the wrong direction.

“The state is so screwed up … I’m not sure it makes much difference who you vote for,” J.B. Cockrell, a Republican from Montara in San Mateo County, said in a follow-up interview.

The poll, a joint effort by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, underscored the continuing power of television in California’s political races. Whitman’s lead in March drew on people who had seen her ubiquitous television ads; since then Poizner gained ground as he extended his television campaign. Fiorina’s current lead came after she started airing ads; her two opponents have had far smaller television profiles.

“General-election campaigns for these offices still attract a decent amount of news coverage, but these present campaigns are a very stark reminder that in a statewide primary, it’s all about the TV ads,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former GOP consultant.

The survey was conducted by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. Pollsters questioned 1,506 registered voters from May 19 to 26. The margin of sampling error was 2.6 points in either direction for the overall sample, with a slightly larger margin of error for partial groups.

Although Whitman has regained a clear lead in the primary race, that achievement could be costly in the general election ahead. “She was forced to respond and define herself as a conservative, probably more clearly than she would have wanted to otherwise,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. “It’s pretty clear there’s a general election price to pay.”

More people knew of her in May than in March, yet Whitman’s favorability rating has stalled with less than a third of voters saying they think well of her. Those thinking poorly of her rose from 23% to 37%. At the same time, Poizner’s unfavorability rose from 23% to 40%.

“His advertising did allow him to be competitive, but she reinvigorated her campaign … and was able to re-control the agenda,” said Republican pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint.

Whitman was leading Poizner in most demographic categories, although she weakened substantially among some groups. But she continued to do well on economic issues, the chief concern of voters in a state rocked by a soaring budget deficit and 12.6% unemployment.

Voters planning to participate in the Republican primary were asked which of the two GOP candidates would be better at creating jobs and fixing the economy: Whitman beat Poizner 55% to 16%. By a margin of 53% to 16%, voters deemed her better suited to rein in government spending. They picked her over Poizner, 48% to 20%, when it came to restraining tax hikes.

Even among the issues that Poizner has raised against Whitman, the state insurance commissioner was not doing particularly well. By a 40% to 27% reading, voters said Whitman would be better at dealing with illegal immigration, a stinging rebuke to Poizner’s argument that she is soft on the issue. Voters found that Whitman, by a 21-point margin, was better at understanding their problems. And they felt she had stronger “conservative values” — another repudiation of Poizner’s barrage of ads against her.

Overall, the findings suggest that although he has managed to damage Whitman, Poizner has not yet made an affirmative case for himself. One sign: he was losing to Brown by 14 points, more than double Whitman’s margin.

Shelly Blizard, a Republican from La Mesa in San Diego County, described herself as one of those who has “flopped a few times” between Whitman and Poizner.

“But truly, I’m much more concerned about where our country is going financially, especially with this healthcare fiasco, and that is what has pushed me back to her now,” she said. Yet the bickering between the two has made the choice seem like picking the lesser of two evils.

“It reminds me of my teenage kids — all right, already,” she said.

Looking ahead at the fall, Whitman has lost ground against Brown among two key voter groups, women and nonpartisan voters, who register in California as “Decline-to-State.” Since Republicans are outnumbered in California, Whitman has counted on those two groups to help push her to victory in November. But now, they have reverted to their traditional support of the Democratic candidate.

In the race for Senate, the dynamic was wholly different. Fiorina now is essentially where Whitman was early this spring: almost uncontested on the airwaves with a positive appeal that drew in women voters in particular.

In March, when former Congressman Campbell narrowly led Fiorina, she was backed by 21% of women who planned to vote in the GOP contest. In the new poll, support among those women zoomed to 40%. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, gained 15 points among moderates, tying Campbell in his favored demographic group. But she also gained 30 points among conservatives, winning 43% of them. DeVore, the Irvine assemblyman, was backed by only 17% of conservatives, a disappointing showing as he has made an energetic but so far unsuccessful pitch for those voters.

The breadth of Fiorina’s support was not, however, translating into strength against Democrat Boxer. She was trailing Boxer 44% to 38%, and DeVore was losing by 46% to 36%. But Campbell was 8 points ahead of Boxer.

His potential strength in the general election centered on the same voters who have now returned to the Democratic fold in the governor’s race — independents, moderates and to some extent women.

In separate matchups against Boxer, Campbell carried nonpartisan voters 46% to 28%, while Fiorina lost them 32% to 42%. Campbell won male voters against Boxer, while Boxer won them against Fiorina or DeVore.

“Campbell’s last best shot is reminding Republicans how much they dislike Barbara Boxer,” said USC’s Schnur.

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