SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Democrat Jerry Brown may still be the presumed front-runner in next year's California governor's race, but a new poll indicates he shouldn't take that position for granted.
A survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California shows Brown would best any of the three Republicans vying for their party's nomination but would not have a 50 percent majority against any of them.
In a matchup against billionaire former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, Brown leads just 43 percent to 37 percent.
Brown, the state's attorney general and a former two-term governor, has yet to officially announce a run for the Democratic nomination but has been furiously fundraising and has chased nearly all challengers from his party's field.
Some Democrats are growing concerned about his wait-it-out strategy.
On the Republican side, the three candidates have been campaigning for months. Whitman, a billionaire, has poured millions of dollars from her personal fortune into a cadre of professional consultants and a series of radio ads, while state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a multimillionaire, announced this week that he would add another $15 million of his own money to his campaign.
Despite their efforts, the poll finds 44 percent of likely GOP voters still don't have an opinion on the race. The most common response when asked whether they support Whitman, Poizner or former Congressman Tom Campbell was undecided or unengaged.
"Six months before the gubernatorial primary, the four major party candidates expected to be on the ballot are attracting little enthusiasm or attention among Californians likely to vote," pollsters wrote in a summary of the survey.
Among those Republicans who do have an opinion, 32 percent favor Whitman, 12 percent favor Campbell and 8 percent support Poizner.
While more than half the likely Democratic voters surveyed said they support Brown as their candidate, the poll results show Brown has work to do in courting independent voters, who now make up 20 percent of the electorate and are the fastest-growing segment of California voters.
Among independents, 39 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion of him, compared to 34 percent favorable. The poll also finds that nearly seven in 10 likely voters under age 35 have no opinion of the former governor, despite his generally strong name recognition after a lifetime in California politics.
"That's the challenge in any campaign, is to get your message out to the voters. That will be one of many challenges going forward," said Steven Glazer, a political adviser to Brown. He said Brown will decide next year whether to formally enter the race.
Fewer than half of all likely voters said they're closely following news about the candidates, prompting many consultants to say they are dismissing polls at this point.
"The PPIC poll shows over half the voters have no opinion yet of any of the candidates and confirms that this race is wide open," said Jarrod Agen, a campaign spokesman for Poizner.
The poll was based on a telephone survey of 2,004 Californians interviewed in English or Spanish from Dec. 1-8. It had a sampling error rate of plus or minus 3 percent for all likely voters, and a slightly higher rates for smaller groups.
The institute also surveyed respondents about a slew of initiatives that could be on the ballot in 2010.
A measure to reduce the requirement for a two-thirds majority of the state Legislature to pass a budget was rated as most important, followed by initiatives dealing with gay marriage, an open primary measure in which the top two candidates would advance regardless of political party and an initiative to legalize marijuana.
After several years of multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls, 88 percent of likely voters called the budget a big problem. The poll also finds that Californians are growing more supportive of balancing the budget through spending cuts rather than a mix of cuts and tax increases.