Pressroom buzz at tonight's mayoral debate inside CBS Television City was less about what the candidates were saying and more about the latest Los Angeles Times Poll, to be published in Tuesday's paper. It shows the race in a statistical three-way tie. Antonio Villaraigosa polls at 24%, Bob Hertzberg at 21% and Jim Hahn at 20%. All three are within the margin of error of 4 points, making it too close to rank them. (Poll data in PDF format) But it's a giant boost for Hertzberg, who polled at 12% before running his Bobzilla TV spots and getting public strokes from Gov. Schwarzenegger, and now is clearly a contender. It's so-so news for Villaraigosa, who may have picked up some votes since last month's Times Poll, but finds himself in a three-man race. And it's bad news for Hahn, who hasn't floated above about 20% of the vote in any independent poll, and has now been caught by Hertzberg. [Also: Parks 11%, Alarcon 5%, don't know 19%.]
The mayor put a game spin on the numbers after the debate, telling reporters backstage that he expected the contest to be close. "I have no doubt that we will finish strong and get in the runoff," he said as aides looked on. KCAL-9 commentator Allan Hoffenblum opined, however, that Hahn's persistent 20% support level looks fatal. He contends the mayor's career was cooked the moment four strong challengers filed to run against him: "He didn't have the bond with the voters to get past it."
Tomorrow's poll story says that only 43% of L.A. voters polled think the mayor has done a good job. Two-thirds said L.A. needs to go in a new direction—more in the Valley and black areas where Hahn did well in 2001. The poll, in the field from Feb. 22 until Sunday, is encouraging for Hertzberg on several fronts:
Eclipsing Hahn, he has emerged as the clear favorite of Republican, conservative, white and elderly voters. With Jewish voters, Hertzberg also has taken a solid lead, surpassing Villaraigosa.
In the Valley, Hertzberg's share of the vote has grown to more than a third, strengthening his front-runner status on his home turf. Villaraigosa has pushed ahead to second place in the Valley, while Hahn has fallen to a distant third in an area where he ran strong in 2001.
The Valley's high turnout rates make it a crucial voting bloc in city elections. In the 2001 mayoral race, the Valley made up 42% of the vote.
Hertzberg's startling television ads — in which he morphs into a giant traversing the tiny city — have clearly powered his rise. A majority of likely voters favors his proposal to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District — and among those voters, Hertzberg is the top choice for mayor. Voters also give him an edge when it comes to who is best suited to lessening traffic congestion. Both issues are spotlighted in his ads.
The debate itself, of course, was kicked off live TV by Viacom's decision to go instead with the regularly scheduled "Entertainment Tonight." The company knew the Oscars timetable when KCBS agreed some months ago to air the debate live, so it's at least a little embarrassing that the telecast was put over (at almost the last minute) to Tuesday night. KCBS declined to explain the decision. If it's a statement about public interest, you wouldn't know it from the press turnout. Rival TV news stations covered the proceedings, analysts Sherry Bebitch Jeffe and Kerman Maddox were on hand, and the press contingent included Newsweek's Andrew Murr, Ken Garcia of the San Francisco Chronicle, political cartoonist Mark Stamaty (on assignment for the Times' Sunday Opinion section) and most of the City Hall press corps. Pro-Hertzberg blogger BoifromTroy also posted a dispatch. The debate itself was streamed on the KCBS website, aired on KFWB and blogged live by endurance transcriber Mack Reed at LAVoice.org.
* Tuesday stories: The Times throws six bodies at the story. Orlov goes it alone for the Daily News. Also AP. If anyone wonders why the Daily Breeze often isn't included in these coverage roundups, it's because the Breeze usually doesn't post stories to the web until later than the other papers.