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Poll: Brown Widens Lead Over Whitman

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California attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown gestures towards his opponent California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman during the second of three televised debates at Fresno State Oct. 2, 2010, in Fresno, California. (credit: Eric Paul Zamora/Getty Images)

California attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown gestures towards his opponent California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman during the second of three televised debates at Fresno State Oct. 2, 2010, in Fresno, California. (credit: Eric Paul Zamora/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A new poll shows Democrat Jerry Brown with a growing lead over his Republican challenger, Meg Whitman, as a gubernatorial campaign that has focused on personal attacks in recent weeks winds to an end.

The University of Southern California-Los Angeles Times poll finds Brown, the former two-term governor, leading former eBay chief executive Whitman, 50 percent to 38 percent among likely voters. Last month, the same poll showed Brown with an edge of 5 percentage points.

In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has a slight lead over Republican Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., 47 percent to 41 percent, Boxer’s edge was 8 percentage points in the earlier USC-Times poll.

Brown also was leading, although by a smaller margin, in a separate poll released last week. His campaign has begun intensive advertising after months of sustained spending by his billionaire opponent.

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Whitman, who unlike Brown faced a competitive primary in June, has spent $162 million on her campaign to date, about $142 million of it from her personal fortune. Brown’s campaign has spent about $25 million.

Their general election campaign is the costliest in the state’s history, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Even with her expensive media campaign, Whitman has found herself on the defensive in recent weeks, especially after she was forced to admit that her former housekeeper of nine years was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Whitman says she fired Nicky Diaz Santillan last year when she learned Santillan was in the country illegally, but declined to help her get an attorney. Santillan said Whitman had clues that she was in the country illegally and fired her only after she decided to run for governor.

The USC-Times survey is the first public poll in which respondents were asked directly about the controversy. More than half of likely voters said Whitman did not handle the incident very well, while about four in 10 did not believe Brown handled the fallout from that incident well.

The survey also found only 24 percent of likely voters said they believe Whitman tells the truth, compared with 44 percent for Brown.

The poll did not ask about a later controversy involving a female Brown campaign aide overheard on a leaked audio tape calling Whitman a “whore” for cutting a deal with a police union for its endorsement. Both controversies dominated the final two gubernatorial debates, overshadowing issues voters have identified as crucial, such as the state of the economy and overcoming political gridlock in Sacramento.

While more than eight in 10 Californians say the state is headed in the wrong direction, they are split about which of the gubernatorial candidates would best handle the economy. Whitman has hammered on the theme of job creation and turning around the economy for nearly two years.

The poll also surveyed Latino voters, a crucial and growing demographic in the state. Those voters preferred Democrats Brown and Boxer by a wider margin than the overall electorate, despite Whitman’s intensive courting of them through Spanish-language advertising.

Brown has wooed Latino voters in part by pledging to sign the Dream Act, which would let U.S. high school graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children become legal residents after spending two years in college or the military. He also has reminded those voters that he marched with labor leader Cesar Chavez at the beginning of his political career.

Whitman has responded with ads attacking Brown for his “soft” stance on immigration, saying California needs to devote its scarce resources to legal residents.

The poll surveyed 922 likely voters by telephone from Oct. 13-20. It has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for likely voters, and plus or minus 4.6 percentage points for the 460 Latino respondents.

Democrats have a 13.4 percentage point registration edge in California, but Republicans are thought to have the momentum this year. The poll anticipates only a 4 percentage point turnout advantage for Democrats.

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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