- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

A California poll shows that Sen. John McCain has only a narrow lead among people who will vote Tuesday in the state’s presidential primary but could win on the strength of a much better showing among the state’s early and absentee voters.

The Suffolk University survey by David Paleologos finds that Mr. McCain, highly popular with Republicans in California’s liberal regions, leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 39 percent to 32 percent overall in the primary, which is open only to Republican voters.

The Arizona senator’s lead thins to only 37 percent to 35 percent — well within the poll’s error margin of 4.38 percentage points — among Tuesday’s voters, but he scores a big advantage among early- and absentee-ballot voters, who gave him a hefty 45 percent to 22 percent spread over Mr. Romney.

As many as half the state’s GOP nomination ballots may be cast by mail, up from 33 percent in 2004 and about 25 percent in 2000.

Mr. Romney is not out of the contest but will need exceptionally large numbers of younger registered Republicans going to the polls and a high Orange County turnout to take away more delegates than McCain, Mr. Paleologos told The Washington Times.

Indecision marks California Republicans at this stage, with 17 percent saying they were very likely or somewhat likely to change their mind. The findings give some idea of what likely voters overall will do on Tuesday but not of who will win the delegates to the Sept. 1-4 Republican National Convention.

California is by far the most delegate-rich among the 21 states holding GOP nomination contests Tuesday. It will award three delegates each to the candidate who gets the most votes in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts — effectively holding 53 nominating elections for 159 of the state’s 173 delegates. Eleven of the remaining 14 go to the overall state winner, with the final three delegate slots being reserved for top state party officials.

Slightly more than 40 percent of respondents in the Paleologos-Suffolk University poll said they watched the GOP debate televised from California on Wednesday night and a plurality of 36.9 percent said Mr. Romney’s performance impressed them most, against just a quarter who gave the debate to Mr. McCain.

The Arizona senator nonetheless is enjoying the bandwagon effect of having won the last two major nomination contests — in Florida and South Carolina — and the endorsements of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and of former rival Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mr. McCain carried the liberal Bay Area by a staggering 2-to-1 margin and also led “marginally” in the Los Angeles area and the state’s north-central and southern regions, Mr. Paleologos said, while Mr. Romney carried Orange County, a historically more conservative region of the state. The former Massachusetts governor also won over 18-to-45 year olds by a 43 percent-28 percent margin statewide. Mr. McCain fared best with the middle-aged and elderly.

The two most important issues for California Republicans were the economy (33.7 percent) and illegal immigration (30.7 percent), followed by terrorism at 17.1 percent and the war in Iraq at 12.8 percent.

“All this forces Romney to win remaining undecideds by a wider margin than in states with no early voting [Tuesday],” Mr. Paleologos said.

Mike Huckabee, who has theoretical strength in one or two congressional districts with concentrations of evangelical voters, pulled only 8 percent of Republicans in the poll. Ron Paul, the staunchest limited-government advocate of the remaining GOP nomination hopefuls, drew only 3.5 percent in the poll.

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