Meg's Big Mo

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Photo: Getty Images

If last Tuesday marked a low point for the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, today shows how fast the PR pendulum can swing, as a new poll shows her ahead of all candidates -- including Democrat Jerry Brown.

Granted, the new Field Poll numbers will be closely scrutinized by some pundits, and rightly so. Polls are, after all, only a snapshot in time and the big news appears to be within the margin of error. Even so, it's hard not to see the results as an extra shot of momentum for the former eBay CEO's campaign.

What will be truly interesting to see is how the Whitman v. Brown result -- 46% Whitman, 43% Brown, 11% undecided -- overshadows perhaps the more relevant results in the GOP primary.

There, Field measured a mammoth gap between Whitman and rival Steve Poizner of 49 points (Whitman 63%, Poizner 14%). That's a substantial growth in Whitman's lead from Field's January poll which found her ahead of the insurance commissioner by 28 points.

But sure, those of us in the political press corps are salivating over the hypothetical general election matchup. Field reports the margin of error as plus or minus 3.7% -- which means the Whitman lead may be more a lead on paper than anything.

With those caveats, Field found some interesting dynamics among subgroups of voters who were surveyed. Whitman's support among Republicans (77%) was stronger than Brown's among Democrats (69%), and the poll found her with fully 50% of the independent voters surveyed. Interestingly, the incumbent attorney general polled better with younger voters 39 years old and younger, while Whitman edged him out among other age groups.

But the subgroup data that caught my eye right off the bat was Latino support, where 54% of Latinos surveyed by Field support Brown and only 25% support Whitman. Given the current dynamic of the Republican primary, with illegal immigration and the re-emergence of Proposition 187 dominating the news coverage, this one's worth watching. Poizner's strategy at last weekend's convention and Monday's debate was to focus in on an issue he thinks will resonate with loyal GOP conservatives -- namely, that all undocumented immigrants... regardless of age or circumstance... should be denied access to state government services.

Whitman says she wouldn't go as far as Poizner, but she did voice her strong opposition to anything that could be construed as "amnesty," and the more she has to play on Poizner's turf of illegal immigration, the more you can bet Democrats will hope Latino voters take notice. It may have been effective to have former Gov. Pete Wilson in the post-debate spin room Monday night saying Poizner was going "even further" than Prop 187 on the issue... but given how many Latinos in California still identify Wilson with the most painful parts of the immigration debate, his presence on the campaign trail could become a story in and of itself if there's truly such a large gap among Latinos between Brown and Whitman.

The big mo that Whitman may feel out of today's poll also is undoubtedly another setback to the Poizner campaign's efforts to escape the "he's way behind" narrative that's taken hold. Poizner sent out an email Tuesday to supporters asking them to make donations to his campaign before the deadline for first quarter contributions. "Will you help our efforts by making an immediate online donation of $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, or whatever amount you can afford to give today?" the email said. This poll might not make that plea any easier.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

And for Jerry Brown, the poll results don't say much for the media blitz surrounding his formal entry into the race; that announcement was on March 2 and the Field Poll was conducted March 9-15. Brown's campaign said Tuesday that they never put much stock in polls even when they showed the political veteran way ahead, and so they're not wringing their hands now; the official line seems to be that they always believed the race for governor would be close.

And here's the question that, for now, no one can safely answer: does the momentum stick with the woman who's spent almost $40 million of her own money to date? Or does it swing back to the man with 40 years of political experience?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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