Poll: Romney holds lead but Santorum gains in California

While challengers rise and recede in the Republican presidential primaries, Mitt Romney's sail remains full in California.

Rick Santorum, the most recent alternative to surge, remains six percentage points behind the former Massachusetts governor among California Republicans, according to a new Field Poll.

Newt Gingrich, who came within striking distance of Romney three months ago, has fallen nearly 20 points behind.

Though the Republican nominee is widely expected to be decided before California holds its primary election on June 5, the poll suggests a potential backstop for Romney should the race reach the Golden State.

"I find that remarkable," said poll director Mark DiCamillo, that "in California, we haven't seen the anti-Romney lead in any of our polls."

Since winning the Republican primary in Missouri and caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, Santorum has overtaken Romney in national polls, and he is narrowing the margin in California, where he trailed by 20 percentage points just weeks ago.

In polling conducted early this month, Romney led Santorum 38 percent to 18 percent among California Republicans, according to the poll. But by mid-February, Santorum was climbing, Romney's lead just 31 percent to 25 percent. Both polls carry a seven-point margin of error.

"Success breeds success," DiCamillo said. "(Santorum's) wins in those three states really changed things for him."

Yet even as Santorum rises, Romney's support among Republican voters in California remains above 30 percent, about where it has hovered for eight months. Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Gingrich, the former House speaker, were running third and fourth, with 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Deborah Brightwell, 61, of Hanford said she supports Romney because he is "middle of the road." Like Brightwell, fully two-thirds of California Republicans view Romney favorably, according to the poll.

But to more than a third of Republicans, it is not a satisfying field.

Just 10 percent of California's registered Republicans are very satisfied with the party's presidential candidates, according to the poll. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans are not at all satisfied or not too satisfied, while 47 percent are somewhat satisfied, according to the poll.

"I'm still looking," said Robert Fulton, a retired police chief and city manager of Waterford. "Nobody really jumps out at me."

The 70-year-old Republican said, "I guess Santorum comes about as close as I could gather ... . I look at Romney, and he's no conservative, that's for sure."

Though California Republicans had never been overly enthusiastic about their candidate choices this year, their outlook is worse than in September, when 19 percent of California Republicans were very satisfied with the field, according to the poll.

The Republicans' worsening mood could reflect recent polling showing President Barack Obama leading the Republican candidates in hypothetical matchups, DiCamillo said.

"I think they're getting this sinking feeling that maybe these guys are not going to be successful," he said. "As they're narrowing the field, the candidates just aren't measuring up, and I think more of them are starting to feel, 'Well, this isn't what I really wanted.' "

Santorum's favorability rating is nowhere near as high as Romney's, though it has improved dramatically since November, when more Republicans held an unfavorable than favorable view of him. Now 40 percent of California's registered Republicans view Santorum favorably, while 22 percent see him in a negative light, according to the poll.

Gingrich, who has fallen back nationally since his win in South Carolina last month, looks worse to California Republicans than he once did, according to the poll. Fifty-two percent of California Republicans now have an unfavorable view of Gingrich, while only 35 percent view him favorably. Three months ago, 55 percent of California Republicans viewed him favorably, according to the poll.

Carmen Callaway of Fresno said she has been a supporter of Santorum's all along.

"When they started this process," she said, "he was the last person, he had no money, and even when they had those debates, they hardly ever asked him anything."

She thinks Santorum will overcome Romney, even in California, but she worries about a matchup with Obama.

"I am excited," the 77-year-old Callaway said. "I just hope he has enough experience behind him so that he can come up with a great debate with the president."

Obama, she said, "is pretty sneaky."

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.