WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Tom Campbell has a six-point lead over his closest challenger in the three-way Republican primary to face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose popularity has significantly eroded in the past two months, according to a Field Poll released Thursday.
The survey found Campbell leading former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina 28 percent to 22 percent among likely Republican voters in the June 8 primary, while Assemblyman Chuck DeVore had support from 9 percent. But most prospective GOP voters, roughly 40 percent, were undecided.
While Boxer's races have historically been sleepy affairs, the poll indicates that Californians could be in for a barnburner this year. Boxer is in a statistical tie in trial matchups with both Campbell and Fiorina. In January, she had substantial double-digit percentage-point leads over all three GOP challengers.
"Formerly, I would have said this is in the Democratic column, but I would say now it's got to be moved into the tossup column," said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the poll. "There just seems to be a turning of voter opinions. I think a lot of it has to do with the Congress."
DiCamillo said it's clear the "tenor of political discourse" has changed in California since Republican Scott Brown pulled off an upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race in January. He said the public's low regard for Congress is affecting Boxer and all incumbents, especially Democrats.
"Voters are starting to be looking for alternatives to the status quo," he said. "And I think that is a political head wind building."
Like most analysts, he's predicting a loss of Democratic seats in Congress in November: "It's not whether they will lose. It's how many."
John Stater, 62, a Republican from Meadow Vista who was polled by Field in the latest survey, said he's backing Campbell because he's a fiscal conservative, and he wants Boxer voted out of office. He said he was impressed with Campbell when he saw him interviewed by Glenn Beck on the Fox News Channel.
"I've followed politics ever since I was in high school, and I'm at the point in my life where I've never been more disgusted and more angry at the politicians in this country," Stater said. "And as far as Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger, I'm just totally appalled. What I see with the politicians nowadays is it's a selfish situation that all of them are in."
Campbell is running strongest among men, voters over 65, moderate conservatives and Southern Californians.
Fiorina leads Campbell among voters between 50 and 64 and is close behind among women, Northern California voters and those who consider themselves "strong conservatives."
Since getting elected to the Senate in 1992, Boxer has won her two re-election bids by double-digit percentage margins. In 1998, she defeated Republican Matt Fong by 10 points, and she beat Republican Bill Jones by a 20-point margin in 2004.
But Boxer's image has declined rapidly this year. In January, she was viewed more favorably than unfavorably by 48 percent to 39 percent. Now more voters view her unfavorably than favorably, 51 percent to 38 percent.
In hypothetical matchups for the Nov. 2 general election, the poll found Campbell leads Boxer 44 percent to 43 percent, Boxer leads Fiorina 45 percent to 44 percent, and she leads DeVore 45 percent to 41 percent. The general election matchups have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
"We're obviously in a very tough political environment where voters are understandably frustrated with the economy and we're facing an (off-year) electorate that's naturally more conservative," said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager. "We always thought this was going to be a challenging race, and now it's clear this is going to be the toughest Boxer campaign yet."
While the poll is good news for Republicans in a state dominated by Democrats, the three Senate GOP contenders are largely unknown to most Californians. Fifty-nine percent said they had no opinion of Campbell, compared to 58 percent for Fiorina and 78 percent for DeVore.
As a result, DiCamillo said, the close race has more to do with Boxer's unpopularity than with the popularity of the GOP challengers.
"I could have put your name against Boxer, and you'd have gotten half the votes," DiCamillo said. "It's really not about the candidates themselves."
Eric Louchis, 60, an unemployed credit manager from Lockeford, said he'll be supporting one of the Republicans, but he's undecided which one it will be, mainly because he doesn't know much about them. But he wants Boxer defeated.
"Here's the deal," Louchis said. "If they're running against Barbara Boxer, I'd probably tend to vote Republican against her. It'd be more a vote against her at this point rather than a vote for any of the people running against her. Her and (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi and Feinstein, they've all been invisible."