California Republicans' resounding "meh" toward their presidential options could mean that the eventual nominee must take a page out of John McCain's something-for- everyone 2008 playbook, a political expert said Wednesday.

Candidates have pushed their campaigns into overdrive as the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses loom just over a month away, yet a Field Poll released Wednesday shows the same proportion of California Republicans now is undecided on a preferred candidate -- 26 percent, up from 16 percent two months ago -- as is supporting front-runner Mitt Romney. Romney's support fell from 30 percent two months ago.

And more than three in four who did voice support for a specific candidate also say it's still early and admit they've not made a final decision. Perhaps that's because only 16 percent are very satisfied with the field of GOP candidates; 47 percent say they're somewhat satisfied; and 33 percent are not too satisfied or not at all satisfied; 4 percent had no opinion.

That tepid response means the eventual nominee -- still most likely Romney, the former Massachusetts governor -- will face the dilemma of mollifying and consolidating the GOP base while simultaneously attracting independent voters and crossover Democrats, said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.


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"I presume his strategy is to move back to the middle, beat the hell out of Obama and choose a real social conservative as a running mate, like McCain did," Cook said.

But "he doesn't need to do as much as McCain did" because the fundamentals are in the GOP's favor this time around, Cook said: a still-stagnant economy and an incumbent with lousy job approval ratings. Gallup now puts President Obama's disapproval rating at 49 percent; four years ago, President George W. Bush's was 57 percent.

The Field Poll -- surveying 330 California Republicans from Nov. 15 through 27, with a 5.7 percentage-point margin of error -- shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich nipping at Romney's heels within that margin, at 23 percent support. No other candidate made it out of the single digits.

Gingrich's strongest base is the roughly one-quarter of Republican voters who identify a lot with the tea party movement; in that group, he leads Romney by 20 points. Among all other Republican voters, Romney leads Gingrich by 11 points.

GOP men are divided almost evenly between Romney (28 percent) and Gingrich (27 percent), while women prefer Romney over Gingrich 25 percent to 19 percent. And Romney's support skews younger: He leads Gingrich by 10 percentage points among Republican voters under 50, although 52 percent of that age group is still undecided; those 50 or older prefer Gingrich by three percentage points.

At a glance
    California Republicans aren't hewing strongly behind any specific candidate, a new Field Poll shows. The support among registered Republicans:

    Nov. 2011 Sept. 2011
    Mitt Romney 26 percent 30 percent
    Newt Gingrich 23 percent 7 percent
    Herman Cain 9 percent 4 percent
    Ron Paul 5 percent 7 percent
    Rick Perry 3 percent 22 percent
    Michele Bachmann 3 percent 7 percent
    Rick Santorum 2 percent 1 percent
    Jon Huntsman 1 percent 3 percent
    Other 2 percent 3 percent
    Undecided 26 percent 16 percent

    Source: Field Poll, www.field.com

Duf Sundheim, the California Republican Party's chairman from 2003 to 2007, chalks the indecision up to "great dissatisfaction with the political system" and the fact that Romney is perceived as "having a wider variety of positions on the issues, not just toeing the conservative line -- that's going to be a liability in the primary process but an asset in the general election."

Ron Nehring, the state GOP's chairman from 2007 to early 2011, said voters' attention remains divided because these final weeks before Iowa coincide with the holiday season's hustle and bustle; Florida's violation of GOP rules started a cascade that now has five states holding caucuses or primaries in January. An earlier, shorter primary schedule means instability, he said, and all but guarantees that California's late primary vote -- way out yonder in June -- will mean little or nothing.

But Nehring conceded that the Field Poll and national polls show that as other candidates take their turn as the "anti-Romney" and then fall away, their supporters still aren't embracing Romney. But if Gingrich can't consolidate and then hold onto their support, Romney it will be.

As Cook put it, "The field is closed, the primaries have started, new names aren't getting into this race anymore."

Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics. Follow Josh Richman at Twitter.com/josh_richman.

At a glance
California Republicans aren't hewing strongly behind any specific candidate, a new Field Poll shows. The support among registered Republicans:
Nov. 2011 Sept. 2011
Mitt Romney 26 percent 30 percent
Newt Gingrich 23 percent 7 percent
Herman Cain 9 percent 4 percent
Ron Paul 5 percent 7 percent
Rick Perry 3 percent 22 percent
Michele Bachmann 3 percent 7 percent
Rick Santorum 2 percent 1 percent
Jon Huntsman 1 percent 3 percent
Other 2 percent 3 percent
Undecided 26 percent 16 percent
Source: Field Poll, www.field.com