LOS ANGELES — Republican voters in California have swung behind Mitt Romney, with the national presidential front-runner crushing his rivals by double digits and substantially expanding his support in the state, a new poll has found.
Romney won 42 percent of registered Republican voters, with his closest rival, Rick Santorum, trailing by 19 points, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were a distant third and fourth.
Romney's support has risen by 15 points since a November USC/Times poll, when Herman Cain was his closest competitor. (The former businessman has since dropped out.)
Yet there remains a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the Republican field. Half of GOP voters said they wished other candidates were running for president.
Barbara Foley, a 73-year-old Republican, said she would prefer former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. She decided to vote for Romney by process of elimination — Santorum is too socially conservative, Gingrich is smart but a "loose cannon," and Paul, "well, I just think he's nuttier than a fruitcake."
"I vote the lesser of two evils, unfortunately," said the Alpine retiree, who deeply disapproves of President Barack Obama, notably his health care law, and fears the nation has grown increasingly socialist under his watch. "Mitt Romney is the lesser of the evils."
The poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, comes less than three months before California holds its potentially important primary.
Although Romney appears headed to a romp on June 5, when the pool of voters will be limited to registered Republicans, his prospects against Obama in the fall remain dim, the poll found. Obama led Romney by 21 points and the other candidates by even more — Paul by 28 points, Santorum by 29 points and Gingrich by 32 points.
Nearly six in 10 voters surveyed approve of the president's job performance, an increase of 7 points since the last USC/Times poll in November. And 62 percent said they had a favorable impression, a figure that soared to 73 percent among Latinos, one of the state's key electoral groups.
Voters had a negative impression of all of the Republican candidates, in contrast. Romney ranked highest, with 37 percent saying they had a favorable view of him. For Paul it was 30 percent, Santorum 28 percent and Gingrich 25 percent.
California voters, who had cooled somewhat toward Obama, now give him improved marks on such issues as his handling of the economy, jobs and taxes. While they remain concerned about the state's economy, voters indicated growing faith in the national recovery. That was particularly true among independents, a key constituency for Obama as he seeks re-election.
"They see a strong national economy and they appear to be giving the president credit for that," said pollster Stanley B. Greenberg of the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the survey with the Republican firm American Viewpoint.