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Gov. Jerry Brown's approval rating has hit a record high among voters and his budget proposal for the next fiscal year has won bipartisan support from rich and poor Californians living all across the state, according to a new poll.
As Brown prepares to announce his widely anticipated re-election bid, 58 percent of adults and 60 percent of likely voters told the Public Policy Institute of California that they approve of the way he is handling his job, up from 49 percent in December.
The governor's job performance won praise from more than 3 in 4 Democrats and a majority of independent voters -- the bread and butter of California's electorate.
And if November's gubernatorial election were held tomorrow, 53 percent of likely voters polled would pick Brown while 17 percent said they favor Tim Donnelly, a Republican assemblyman from Twin Peaks whose candidacy is supported by the tea party.
"All of this adds up to one thing," said Bill Whalen, a former aide to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "Jerry Brown is in a formidable position to be re-elected."
"His odds right now are as good as Cate Blanchett's," Whalen said, referring to film critics' speculation that the Australian actress is a statistical lock to win this year's Academy Award for best actress.
Conversely, neither President Barack Obama nor the Legislature had much of a lock. Obama's job approval rating among likely voters has fallen to a new low -- 46 percent -- the survey found, and fewer than half of voters surveyed approved of the Legislature's performance. Nevertheless, the Legislature's approval rating has risen sharply to 42 percent from a nadir in the low 20s in May 2011, as the state's fiscal outlook and economy has improved.
Brown's popularity is partly due to the positive press he's received in recent weeks for helping to build a multibillion-dollar surplus and proposing to use it to pay down California's debts, Whalen said.
Indeed, 75 percent of likely voters reported favoring the governor's budget proposal, and a majority said they support Brown's calls to link reserve fund deposits to capital gains revenue and to limit spending.
"The idea of having a rainy-day fund is highly popular in the context of a drought emergency and budget surplus this year," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and CEO. "This is the most solid support for Brown we've seen from the public."
The Democratic governor's fiscal prudence has won applause from across the aisle, too.
Scores of Republican lawmakers have praised Brown's $106.8 billion spending blueprint, and the poll found 66 percent of Republican voters support the plan, even though only 1 in 3 said they like Brown's job performance. But the Republicans lined up to challenge Brown in the upcoming gubernatorial election have hammered the spending plan.
Donnelly and Neel Kashkari, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, have criticized Brown for not doing enough to pay off California's credit cards and grow the state's economy.
Respondents were not asked for opinions about Kashkari because he had not yet announced his candidacy when the telephone survey was conducted between Jan. 14 and Jan. 21.
The share of likely voters who said they would pick Donnelly increased one percentage point since December, and that's good news for his campaign, said Jennifer Kerns, his spokeswoman.
Dan Newman, a political strategist and adviser to Brown, said voters have Brown to thank for California's fiscal stability. "Numbers will go up and down," he said, "but really, the only people disappointed that the governor turned the massive deficit into a surplus are the two Republican candidates."
The poll also surveyed Californians' views on the state's implementation of the new federal health care law, immigration reform and tax policy, among other issues.
Fewer than half of Californians -- 46 percent -- said the state's health care exchange, Covered California, is working well. At the same time, 72 percent of the uninsured reported that they plan to get coverage this year.
That number is "pretty positive" and reflects a significant unmet need for health insurance in California, said Diana Dooley, chairwoman of the statewide health exchange's board of directors.
"We've acknowledged there is room for improvement in customer service, but these numbers seem to indicate that the high volume of calls we've received matches high demand for coverage," Dooley said.
The poll of 1,706 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for all adults.