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By David Siders
Gov. Jerry Brown's public approval rating has risen to a new high, as he pummels a crop of little-known Republicans in his bid for re-election, according to a new Field Poll.
Brown's 59 percent approval rating among registered voters is nearly identical to the 57 percent of likely voters who would vote for him in June. His closest competitor, Republican Tim Donnelly, trails Brown by 40 percentage points, according to the poll.
Brown has enjoyed widespread praise for the state's improving budget outlook, and Republican candidates' complaints about the state's high poverty and unemployment rates appear not to have rubbed off on him.
"People are fairly content with Brown's performance," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. "Any governor who is presiding at a time when the state's finances are improving, the economy's coming out of the doldrums ... that's an enviable situation for any sitting governor to run for re-election."
Brown's public approval rating and massive fundraising advantage have reduced the primary election to a contest for second place, with the top vote-getting Republican advancing to a runoff against Brown in the fall. Donnelly, a state assemblyman from Twin Peaks and a tea party favorite, stands out among Republicans as the early frontrunner, with 17 percent support.
With support from just 2 percent of likely voters, the other main Republican in the race, Neel Kashkari, lags not only behind Donnelly, but 1 percentage point behind Laguna Hills Mayor Andrew Blount, who has done little visible campaigning and is known in Orange County for his elaborate Christmas light displays.
"Candidates other than those named Brown and Donnelly aren't looking too good in this poll," DiCamillo said.
Brown's 59 percent public approval rating is the highest of his third term, though it remains lower than in the 1970s, when Brown was governor before. His approval rating among registered voters has remained above 50 percent since February 2013, after hovering in the 40s for the first two years of his term.
While drawing support from California's large number of Democrats and independent voters, more than one third of Republicans - 35 percent - also rate Brown favorably, according to the poll.
"I think just from a point of view that he's fiscally conservative, I give him a lot of credit for that," said Clay Rosson, a Republican poll respondent who owns a water filter business in Ceres.
Rosson, 44, said he is leaning toward voting for Brown in June but said he might change his mind depending what he learns about the Republican candidates.
For now, he said, "I don't know who they are."
Most people don't. Two months before the primary, 50 percent of likely voters still have no opinion of Donnelly, and 64 percent have no opinion of Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, according to the poll.
Brad Mills, a Republican from Clovis, said he doesn't "keep up on the state level as much as local and national because, frankly, conservatives have been left in the dust for a while at the state level."
The 36-year-old pastor said Donnelly's views are probably more in line with his but that he won't make up his mind until researching the candidates closer to the election.
While the Republicans struggle to make an impression on voters, Brown has been on their ballots for decades. Brown, who turned 76 on Monday, was governor before from 1975 to 1983, and if he wins re-election he will be the only California governor ever elected to four terms.
He is supported by majorities of Democrats, independents, liberals and middle-of-the-road voters, by men and women and Californians of all ages and ethnicity, according to the poll.
"I like the direction the state is going - the surplus and different things, and I credit a lot of that to leadership at the top," said Andrew Lopez, a 30-year-old Democrat from Sacramento.
Donnelly, the Legislature's most outspoken advocate for gun rights and against illegal immigration, and Kashkari, a more moderate candidate, are both actively campaigning. But their paid media efforts have been minimal and, so far, include no ads on TV.
The Field Poll is the second recent public opinion measure putting Donnelly ahead of Kashkari. The polls are significant to Donnelly to promote the credibility of his candidacy, after he reported last month that he had less than $11,000 in cash on hand.
Kashkari has banked more than $900,000, while Brown has nearly $20 million at his disposal.
Last month, when a Public Policy Institute of California poll also put Kashkari's support at 2 percent, he told reporters "that's exactly where we expected to be."
"We haven't started advertising yet," Kashkari said, "and we wouldn't expect to see any movement in the polls until we actually start running advertisements."
It is unclear how much of the electorate will be watching. Voters who are satisfied with an incumbent governor may have little motivation to learn about other candidates, DiCamillo said.
"They're not actively seeking for an alternative," he said. "When they're content with the incumbent, it often works to the detriment of all challengers."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.