Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses with servers at MaryAnn’s Diner during a campaign stop in Derry, N.H. (Charles Krupa, AP / June 14, 2011)

By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times
November 16, 2011, 5:40 p.m.

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.

To read entire story, click here.