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Can Steve Poizner pull a Gray Davis?

March 17, 2010 |  9:15 am
Meg Whitman jumped out to a 49-point lead over Republican rival Steve Poizner -- and a small lead over Democrat Jerry Brown -- in a new Field Poll today. The Poizner campaign maintains that polls at this phase of the campaign are meaningless.

Not convinced? Take a look at the headline from the Field Poll almost 12 years ago to the day. The headline of Field's March 18, 1998, survey read, "Harman moves ahead of Checchi and Davis in Democratic field for governor."

That would be Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the candidate who eventually finished with 12% of the vote, and Al Checchi, the former Northwest Airlines executive who finished with 13% in the June 1998 primary election.

Primary rules for that election were slightly different than they are now. In that election, voters from either party were allowed to vote for whichever candidate they wanted. Gray Davis was the top Democratic vote-getter that year with 35% of the overall vote. Republican Dan Lungren, who did not have a competitive primary, was the top Republican vote-getter.

But three months before the election, Davis' victory was anything but guaranteed. The March 1998 survey found Davis with just 11% of the vote. Harman had 17%, while Checchi was favored by 15% of those surveyed.

Obviously Davis was much closer to his primary opponents than Poizner is to Whitman. But Davis did appear to be losing momentum in that March poll -- dropping 10 points from the February 1998 survey.

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said the latest survey has some troublesome signs for Poizner.

"I'm always more interested in the direction of change than the actual numbers," he said. "The momentum is clearly with Whitman. That is very ominous for Poizner."

DiCamillo said comebacks do happen, but they usually do not follow the path Poizner appears to be on.

"In those instances, candidates start out low and build momentum. We saw that with Bill Simon against Richard Riordan. That's not what we're seeing with Poizner."

DiCamillo said it would take "some scandal or something would have to interject in this race that would change the dynamic. She's in cruise control right now."

-- Anthony York