Californians favor Bush, poll shows
President scores higher than any Democrat in race
While California is a must-win state for Democrats in the 2004 presidential derby, incumbent Republican George W. Bush holds an early lead over a largely unknown field of Democratic hopefuls, a new Field Poll shows.
If the 2004 election was held now, state voters would back the president, 45 percent to 40 percent, over an unnamed Democratic candidate.
It's anyone-but-Bush in the Bay Area, however, where 55 percent of those surveyed said they'd pick any Democrat over the president, compared with 31 percent who backed Bush.
With 11 months to go before California's March 2004 primary and better than 1 1/2 years until the November general election, the numbers likely will see plenty of changes, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
"This is really the first look anyone's had at the 2004 presidential race in California," he said. "We'll do it again in the summer and the fall and see what changes."
Things can only get better for most of those looking to replace Bush. Of the nine potential candidates listed, more than half the Democrats surveyed had no opinion about five of them.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman led the pack in California, with 22 percent of those surveyed listing him as their top choice in the 2004 Democratic primary. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was the first choice at 16 percent, and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was the only other candidate to break double digits, with 12 percent.
The rankings this early are more a measure of name identification than potential strength, DiCamillo said, with Lieberman, the Democrats' choice for vice president in 2000, a likely front-runner.
"This is a very early measure, and the candidates are not all on equal footing," he said. "There are a lot of these candidates who still aren't well known."
Early or not, the survey is still bad news for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who raised more money nationally than any other Democratic candidate in the first three months of the year.
Edwards, who has been nearly invisible in California, was the top choice of just 3 percent of the Democrats surveyed, running behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Illinois Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Only 18 percent of those surveyed planned to vote for him, 27 percent were disinclined and 55 percent had no opinion.
When those Democratic voters were asked who they were inclined to support, Kerry led the way with 43 percent, compared to Lieberman with 42 percent and Gephardt with 35 percent. But only 21 percent said they weren't inclined to back Kerry, compared to 36 percent for Lieberman and 31 percent for Gephardt.
While Bush's 5-point advantage is good news for Republicans, California GOP officials are a long way from breaking out the party hats. A Zogby poll released earlier this week gave Bush an 11-point lead nationally, 47 percent to 36 percent, over that same generic Democrat. California remains a stronghold for Democratic opposition.
Bush himself hasn't been seen in California since he made a daylong swing through Stockton and Orange County for GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon last August.
"We are a territory -- we're Guam (to the Bush administration)," Walnut Creek Rep. Ellen Tauscher told The Chronicle editorial board Tuesday. "He knows he can't get on the scorecard here."
The poll did provide California Republicans with some hope for the future, however. While Latino voters preferred a Democratic nominee over Bush by a 42 percent to 36 percent margin, that's a strong showing for Republicans.
"It's been a Republican priority to do better among the fast-growing Latino population," DiCamillo said. "This poll suggests that Bush is not doing too badly, since Republicans have typically had a hard time breaking out of the mid-20s."
The poll is based on a telephone survey of 695 registered voters, including 292 Democrats, taken between April 1 and 6. Sampling error for the entire poll is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points and plus or minus 5.8 percentage points for the questions asked only to Democrats.