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By Christopher Cadelago
Three years ahead of the presidential race, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has carved a considerably more favorable impression among California voters than four other possible GOP contenders, according to a new Field Poll.
Some 47 percent of California voters have a complimentary view of Christie, while just 19 percent see him unfavorably. Each of the other four potential presidential candidates is viewed by voters as more unfavorable than favorable.
All of the possible GOP presidential candidates in the survey - Christie, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida - are viewed favorably among Republicans.
Christie, however, polls head-and-shoulders above the others in terms of his image among the broader voting public.
"What's really remarkable about Christie is his very positive image rating among Democrats and nonpartisans," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. "It's on the order of 2-to-1 positive in the early going, which is a very unusual and I think an exceptional profile to have at this stage. He's in an enviable position."
Carolyn Koehler, 72, of Fair Oaks, volunteered for President Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns and was a proud supporter.
"I was inspired, I must say," said Koehler, a Democrat.
She told pollsters she views Christie favorably - a rating she didn't give Bush or Cruz - based on his willingness to compromise. Results for Rubio and Paul were based on an earlier Field Poll survey completed in July among 846 registered state voters.
"I remember when Republicans were not at all the way they are today," she said. "And our government seemed to run quite well for a long time."
Koehler pointed to the backlash Christie faced from within his own party after his literal and figurative embrace of Obama after a hurricane ravaged his state.
"He's fearless when it comes to speaking out in a public relations way," she said. "But I also understand that may just be the way New Jersey is."
Since his trouncing of Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono last month, a number of national polls have had Christie as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. In the Field Poll, he drew a favorable opinion from 44 percent of third-party or independent voters, 22 percentage points higher than Bush and Paul, who tied for second among those voters.
The last Republican to win California was George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988. To be competitive here in the next election, a candidate would need to win over a large share of independents and Democrats.
The survey also shows state voters overwhelmingly believe the tea party's influence on the Republican Party weakens its chances in the 2014 congressional elections.
Bolstered by the troubled launch of the federal health care law, California Republicans are hoping to add to their 15 congressional seats out of the state's 53. GOP voters by a 2-1 margin view the tea party as having a more positive impact on American politics.
But even voters from the party's shrinking ranks, by a 48 percent to 33 percent margin, view the populist, conservative movement as undermining their chances of winning congressional seats next fall.
"If you as a candidate are running in one of those primaries, and you try to associate yourself with the tea party, it would look to me as a fairly toxic position," DiCamillo said. "They are so broadly panned by Democrats and nonpartisans that the slight benefit you get from Republicans is far outweighed by the negative drag that the Democrats and nonpartisans bring to that identification.
"You would want to hide your tea party affiliation and you wouldn't want to broadcast any kind of tea party endorsement as a candidate in California."
Peter Sanchez, 32, a general contractor from Fresno, is an independent who says he votes for presidents based on the candidate and not their party. He supported Obama in 2012 and 2008, but voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and 2000.
Sanchez said he likes Christie "because he's his own man." And while he identifies somewhat with the tea party, Sanchez said he believes the movement has had a negative impact on America.
"When it came out it was a good thing: It brought a new view; even independents were for it," he said. "Now it's been co-opted by the GOP. The Republican Party is a weaker party now because of the tea party."
For Republican Kathy Ford of Merced, it's not the anti-tax, smaller-government movement that's to blame for the downward trajectory of the country; rather it's the stubbornness and wrongheaded policies of the president.
Ford, 71, a retired certified master dog trainer, described her media appetite as voracious.
"I have the television on 24/7," Ford said. "And I am not saying that I would jump over a cliff for Chris Christie, but he's got moxie."
Ford doesn't blame Christie for his post-storm praise of the president in the weeks leading up to his contest with Republican Mitt Romney.
"Obama played him like a cheap fiddle, but Christie still needed to do what was best for his constituents," she said.
Ford also rejected the notion that Christie's considerable weight - an issue that has followed him politically for years - renders him unfit for office.
"I don't give a damn," she said. "He stands up straight and tells it like it is. At this point I am tired of pussyfooting around."
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.