WASHINGTON Democratic candidates hold a narrow advantage in the run-up to November's U.S. congressional elections in California where big-spending Republican Meg Whitman is struggling in the race for governor, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found on Tuesday.
As Democratic voters show increased enthusiasm in the country's most-populous state, Democrat Jerry Brown leads Whitman in the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, 50 percent to 43 percent.
Whitman is a billionaire and former eBay CEO who has spent at least $119 million of her own money on her campaign.
The poll found that a flap over her former housekeeper Nicky Diaz, a Latina woman who said she worked for Whitman as an illegal immigrant, does not appear to have had a big impact on the race.
Seventy-two percent of registered voters said the affair made no difference to the way they plan to vote. Only 11 percent said it made them much less likely to back Whitman, not enough to weigh against the Republican, Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said.
But overall, the poll ratings are not trending well for Whitman. The race is not over but "if nothing happens then she probably will not be able to take it," Jackson said.
Incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, one of U.S. President Barack Obama's key allies in the U.S. Senate, holds a slender lead of 49 percent to 45 percent over Republican challenger and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
"It's Boxer's to lose at this point but there is a realistic chance that Fiorina can take it," Jackson said.
The poll found that enthusiasm about the election among Democrats has improved, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they are certain to vote compared to 60 percent in June.
Nationally, Democrats have shown more interest in recent weeks in getting out to vote on November 2 but polls still show the Republicans could win control of the House of Representatives due to anger at unemployment and the economy. All 435 House seats and 37 of the 100 Senates seats are up for grabs.
Republicans remain highly engaged in the state -- 83 percent said they are enthusiastic about voting -- but Democrats are far more numerous in California.
"It's always tough sledding in California, just because of the massive advantage Democrats have in terms of registered voters," said Jackson.
BROWN OPENS ADVANTAGE
Brown, a former California governor and familiar face in California politics for 40 years, may be benefiting from California's status as a heavily Democratic state.
He and Whitman battled toe-to-toe in a debate on Saturday as they traded charges of lies and deception over the case of the illegal immigrant who used to work for Whitman.
"Jerry Brown seems to be opening up an advantage over Meg Whitman," said Jackson.
The poll found 50 percent of voters believe jobs and the economy are the main issues facing the state, about the same as a June survey.
California suffers from a weak economy, stubbornly high 12.4 percent jobless rate and a soaring budget gap.
This has combined to damage the image of Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who the poll found has an approval rating of 31 percent versus 64 percent who disapproved.
His nearly seven-year tenure has been marked by battles over spending with the Democratic-controlled legislature as the economy drooped.
In good news for environmentalists and alternative energy companies, the poll said 49 percent of Californian voters are opposed to a proposition that would suspend the state's climate change law until California's jobless rate drops to 5.5 percent or less for a year. It said 37 percent favored making the change, which is on the ballot on November 2.
And Californian voters, by 53 percent to 43 percent, oppose another ballot proposal to make it legal for people 21 years or older to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.
The Ipsos poll of 600 registered voters, including 448 who said they were likely to vote, was taken from Saturday to Monday.