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Gov. Jerry Brown's public approval rating has surged to a new high, and he is the overwhelming early favorite to win re-election next year, according to a new Field Poll.
Nearly six in 10 registered voters - 58 percent - approve of the job Brown is doing, up seven percentage points from July, according to the poll. Brown leads his closest Republican challengers, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado and Twin Peaks Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, by more than 40 percentage points.
"It's overwhelming," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. "Voters may be satisfied enough with Jerry Brown that they never seriously entertain any of the challengers. At least that's what it's looking like at this stage."
Brown has not yet said if he will seek a fourth term, but he is raising money for the effort and is widely expected to run. The poll comes six months before a June primary in which the top two vote-getters will advance to a November runoff regardless of political party.
In a potential contest between Brown and three Republicans - Maldonado, Donnelly and former U.S. Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari, Brown leads with 52 percent support among registered voters, according to the poll. Maldonado and Donnelly trail with 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
Kashkari, who is laying the groundwork for a campaign but has not yet said if he will run, polls last at 3 percent, with 25 percent of registered voters undecided.
Brown leads the field by wide margins among both Democrats and independent voters, as well as across regions, genders, age and ethnic groups.
"It's such a dominant position up and down the line," DiCamillo said. "It's hard to find a segment that is not, at this stage, supporting Brown more than the others."
Among registered Republicans, 21 percent favor Maldonado and 20 percent favor Donnelly, according to the poll. Seventeen percent of Republicans favor Brown.
Brown's public approval rating is the highest of his third term, though it remains lower than in the 1970s, early in his tenure as governor before. His sustaining popularity is in part a reflection of California's heavily Democratic electorate, with a majority of Democrats approving of the governor and a majority of Republicans disapproving.
Among independents, 58 percent of voters approve of the job Brown is doing, while 33 percent disapprove, according to the poll.
"I'm a far-left Democrat, and he's a Democrat, so he's got a plus there," said David Allen, a retired Spanish professor who was among voters surveyed.
The 85-year-old from Davis said Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, "has always been ... good at looking at the philosophy of things."
Brown has less abstract advantages heading into a re-election year. He has raised more than $14 million for the campaign, while Maldonado and Donnelly have both struggled to collect even a fraction of that amount. After finishing the first half of the year in debt, Maldonado has reported raising about $150,000 since July, while Donnelly has reported raising about $123,000.
Insufficient funding could be debilitating for candidates still unknown to much of the electorate. In the earliest stages of the campaign, 62 percent of voters say they have no opinion of Maldonado, while 80 percent have no opinion of Donnelly, according to the poll. Eighty-three percent of voters say they have no opinion of Kashkari.
"The names are somewhat familiar, but I just couldn't give you an opinion at this point," said Clayton Bukovics, a Republican who lives in Foresthill and works for an agricultural tire manufacturer.
Bukovics, 52, fears Brown will keep his office for another four years. Despite his frustration with the governor, Bukovics said, "There's not enough people pissed off."
Maldonado, a farmer from Santa Maria, is coming off back-to-back campaign losses, first to keep his appointed post as lieutenant governor in 2010 and then for a seat in Congress in 2012. Donnelly is the Legislature's most outspoken gun-rights and anti-illegal immigration advocate, while Kashkari played a central role in implementing the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program during President George W. Bush's administration.
The poll comes amid an improving economy and state budget outlook. The Legislature's fiscal analyst last month projected the state will have a $5.6 billion surplus by June 2015.
The forecast does not account for tens of billions of dollars in unfunded state retirement and health care obligations, and Brown's Republican challengers have seized on those liabilities and on the state's high poverty rate to criticize Brown. The U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that 23.8 percent of Californians live in poverty under a calculation that accounts for the state's cost of living.
Michael Grebitus, a Republican from Roseville, attributed Brown's popularity to the political makeup of the electorate, but also to what he said is a lack of focus on California by national news broadcasts fixated on the East Coast, including dysfunction in Washington.
"I think the nation's problems overshadow California's problems," the 30-year-old financial adviser said.
Nathan Hamel, an architectural draftsman from Stockton, said his own business has remained "kind of slow" coming out of the recession but that the economy overall appears to be improving. The 29-year-old Democrat said he will likely vote for Brown next year.
"I don't follow politics that closely," he said, "but everything seems to be going pretty well."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.