With stronger backing from women and independent voters, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has jumped to an eight-percentage-point lead over her GOP rival, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, according to the latest Field Poll.
Headed into the final weekend of their hard-fought marathon campaign, Boxer has the backing of 49 percent of likely voters, compared with 41 percent for Fiorina. Boxer's lead has increased by two percentage points since last month.
"With each poll, she gathers just a little bit more support, and she's certainly in the most comfortable position now than she's been in the past six months," said Mark DiCamillo, the poll's director.
With Democrats greatly outnumbering Republicans in California, DiCamillo said, Fiorina must do particularly well with independent voters to win. But the poll found independents breaking solidly for Boxer, who leads 49 percent to 32 percent among nonpartisan voters.
In addition, women are now supporting Boxer by a margin of 15 percentage points.
"What it says to me is that the women are going home to their partisan loyalties rather than crossing party lines in this race," DiCamillo said.
Peggy Moser, 63, a Democrat from Galt and one of the poll respondents, said she already has cast her vote for Boxer: "She's for the people. Barbara Boxer really cares about her constituency."
Moser, a retired child support enforcement specialist, said she appreciated Boxer's work on behalf of veterans, her constituent service and her support of gay rights: "I'm not gay, but you know what? It doesn't matter to me. I'm for equality. I'm for fairness."
The poll found voters holding divided and very partisan views toward both Boxer, who's seeking a fourth term, and Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard.
Jim Tank, 76, a Republican and a retired U.S. Forest Service employee from Porterville, said he planned to vote for Fiorina for one reason: "She's not Barbara Boxer. I'm kind of anti-incumbent. I have absolutely no clue as to what she's actually done or not done. I just don't think the world needs career politicians."
The poll, released Thursday, is consistent with other surveys released in the past week that show the incumbent with a single-digit lead.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said the closing days of the campaign will be more complicated for Boxer since Fiorina had to be hospitalized this week. She spent Tuesday night in a hospital getting treatment for an infection related to her breast cancer surgery.
"It's tricky for Boxer because a good chunk of her campaign has been negative. But now Fiorina's been ill, and (Boxer) doesn't want to look as if she's kicking someone when she's down," Pitney said.
He said Fiorina is hardly out of the race: "Given the character of the election, if Boxer is up by only a small margin on election eve, I think Fiorina could win."
David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant from Sacramento, said Boxer is getting help from gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, who has opened up a 10-percentage-point lead over Republican challenger Meg Whitman in the Field Poll.
Townsend said Whitman's poor showing is "creating some disillusionment among Republican voters."
"Across the country, most Democratic senators are losing," he said. "They're beyond close in a lot of states. I think the tea bag/Republican thing is going to end at the Colorado River. In California, we're a pretty blue state, and voters aren't buying what Fiorina and Whitman are selling."
Both Fiorina and Boxer made campaign appearances Thursday in the Sacramento area, where they argued the merits of the $814 billion stimulus program passed by Congress last year.
The two candidates have sparred over the stimulus package during their entire campaign. Boxer argues that it has created jobs, while Fiorina contends it has been a failure because unemployment in California has increased since the package was approved.
Fiorina, making her first campaign appearance since her release from the hospital Wednesday, said at a meeting with supporters at the McClellan Business Park that any unspent stimulus money should be used to reduce the national debt.
"The stimulus package was designed to create jobs – specifically construction jobs and shovel-ready projects – and in that regard it failed by most every measure," she said.
Boxer went to Rancho Cordova, joining Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke for a tour of Clean Energy Systems Inc., a company that develops zero-emission commercial power plants.
The company received a $30 million grant as part of the stimulus program and plans to add 150 employees, more than doubling the size of its work force.
Boxer called the Sacramento area "a leader in the new clean energy business" and said California should be first in inventing and creating more "clean technology."
"That's what I'm about," said Boxer, who heads the Senate environment committee.
Addressing a group of the company's employees, Boxer referred to the stimulus: "We are seeing the results of some of the tough votes we cast. My opponent said she wouldn't have voted for this. Well, if she was there, then we wouldn't be here. The way we vote and what we do definitely matters."