- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman find themselves tied in their race for California governor, but voters have grown increasingly disenchanted with both candidates, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

In results showing recent gains for the Republican, Mr. Brown has support from 44 percent of likely voters, compared with 43 percent for Ms. Whitman, but the difference is well within the Field Poll’s margin of error.

In what is likely to be one of the nation’s most expensive and closely watched gubernatorial bouts this fall, the poll shows 40 percent have an unfavorable impression of Mr. Brown, the state attorney general and former governor, up from 32 percent in January.

Since she won the primary, Ms. Whitman has released television ads that are playing continuously throughout the state, one promoting her vision for California’s future and another characterizing Mr. Brown’s first tenure as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s as a failure.

Mr. Brown has yet to release any of his own advertisements, which has wounded the candidate, said the poll’s director, Mark DiCamillo.

“You’re watching TV, you’re picking up messages that are positive for Whitman and negative for Brown,” Mr. DiCamillo said. “His image rating could go down further if the advertising continues without any answer.”

While Mr. Brown is doing no advertising of his own, independent groups aligned with unions have been airing anti-Whitman television commercials.

Ms. Whitman’s image also suffered during a bruising Republican primary campaign, when she endured attacks from her former opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Mr. Brown faced only nominal opposition on the Democratic side, but his free ride in the race is clearly over.

The Field Poll found that 42 percent of voters had an unfavorable impression of Ms. Whitman, the former CEO of online auction giant eBay. That’s up from 20 percent in January, when many voters had not yet formed an opinion of her.

In a worrisome sign for the Brown campaign, Ms. Whitman appears to have made gains with ethnic voters and union members, both key Democratic constituencies.

While Hispanics favor Mr. Brown over Ms. Whitman 50 percent to 39 percent, they usually back Democrats by a 3-to-1 ratio, Mr. DiCamillo said.

Likewise, union members are not giving as much support to Mr. Brown as they have given to Democrats in the past. In January, Ms. Whitman was trailing among union households by a 2-to-1 margin, but she trailed Mr. Brown only 41 percent to 47 percent in the Field Poll.

In both instances, Ms. Whitman has stepped up her outreach to those groups, courting Hispanics with a TV ad that notes her opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law and sending campaign fliers to California nurses.

“Here we are in the early stages and we see the outlines of what she’s trying to do, broaden support among ethnic voters and union members,” Mr. DiCamillo said.

If Whitman continues to soften the Democrats’ hold on Hispanic and union voters, she might not need the double-digit support from decline-to-state voters often required for a Republican to win, the pollster said.

The telephone survey of 1,005 likely voters was taken June 22 to Monday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. The margin of error was 5.5 percentage points for those voters who were asked more detailed questions.