07:45 AM PDT on Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sacramento Bureau

Meg Whitman has opened a giant lead over Republican gubernatorial rival Steve Poizner and erased a double-digit gap with presumptive Democratic nominee Jerry Brown, according to a new survey.

Today’s Field Poll shows that Whitman, the former eBay chief, leads Poizner, the insurance commissioner, 63 to 14 percent among likely voters. That is close to double her margin in January.

In a prospective November general election matchup, Whitman leads Brown, the attorney general, 46 to 43 percent, with 11 percent of voters undecided, according to the poll. Brown led by 10 points in January and 20 points in October.

“Whitman has really taken hold of this campaign. She has this big voter surge in both races, whether it’s the primary or the general election,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said Tuesday.

The poll’s release comes two days after the leading Republican candidates held their first debate. The Whitman campaign declined to comment Tuesday on whether Poizner should drop out.

“We know there will be many polls during this race. We’re confident that on Election Day both in June and November, Californians will choose Meg’s leadership to create jobs, cut spending and improve education,” spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said in a statement.

For Whitman, today’s results show the benefits of a strategy marked by unprecedented spending on TV and radio ads months before the election, despite complaints that she has avoided reporters and specifics.

Whitman, a billionaire from the Silicon Valley, has contributed $39 million to her campaign, which had spent $19.5 million through December. Advertisements were a mix of those introducing Whitman and criticizing Poizner.

Poizner, another wealthy Silicon Valley resident, recently began running TV ads and tapping some of the $19 million he has contributed to his campaign.

A Poizner spokesman said his campaign will continue pressing its case.

“While Meg Whitman has spent unprecedented millions to drive up her name recognition, she has offered no real solutions,” spokesman Jarrod Agen said in a statement. “When voters hear Steve’s bold plan for conservative reform, they will choose Steve Poizner as the Republican nominee.”

DiCamillo said the problem for Poizner goes beyond the size of Whitman’s lead. Poizner has been unable to stop it from getting bigger.

“She’s just so totally dominated the early going of this race,” DiCamillo said. “The momentum has to be more troubling for Poizner than just the numbers.”

Ready for fall race

If Poizner manages to win the GOP primary, he trails Brown by 17 points in a general election, according to the poll. But if Whitman continues her surge, she is in good shape for a fall fight.

Whitman has opened a 14-point lead over Brown among independent voters, a crucial constituency in a state where Republicans make up less than a third of the electorate. Her favorability ratings have gone up 15 points since January, while Brown’s have declined slightly.

Brown is strongest in the San Francisco Bay area and the rest of Northern California. Whitman’s support is highest in the Central Valley and Riverside, San Bernardino and other Southern California counties outside of Los Angeles. She even holds a slight edge in traditionally Democratic Los Angeles County.

Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983, opened an exploratory committee last year to return to his old job.

For months, though, the political veteran demurred when asked if he was a candidate. Brown finally declared his candidacy earlier this month and has started ramping up his campaign operation.

A pro-Brown independent expenditure committee, Level the Playing Field, began running anti-Whitman ads last month.

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said the Republican primary and Whitman’s spending have raised her profile. “This is going to be a close and hard-fought election,” Clifford said.

Field Poll respondents from the Inland area said they were beginning to pay attention to the governor’s race.

Judith Topp, of Beaumont, a retired teacher and registered Democrat, said she increasingly likes Whitman and plans to vote for her in June and November.

“Jerry’s done good things, but I really think we need new focus,” said Topp, 65. “I wasn’t sure who I would lean toward. I did like Schwarzenegger, but I don’t think he got the cooperation of the lawmakers.”

Raymond Brown, of Riverside, who also voted for Schwarzenegger, said he is a strong Jerry Brown backer.

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