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California governor's race tightens: poll

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ex-Governor Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic nominee in California's gubernatorial race, has seen his lead over Republican front-runner Meg Whitman evaporate, according to a Field Poll of likely voters released on Wednesday.

Brown, the state attorney general who held double-digit leads over Whitman in Field Poll surveys taken in October and January, now trails the former eBay Inc. chief executive by 43 percent to 46 percent in a two-way matchup.

Eleven percent of those polled, a random sample of 748 likely general-election voters, said they were undecided. And Whitman's lead was within the statistical margin of error.

But the results mark a sharp turnaround in a race likely to pit a veteran politician who served two previous terms for governor against a billionaire business executive who has never sought public office and rarely even voted.

Whitman also widened her advantage over her rival for the Republican nomination, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, 63 percent to 14 percent. In January, she led Poizner 45 percent to 15 percent. The percentage of undecided Republican voters shrank from 38 percent to 23 percent.

Brown, not surprisingly, still holds a better-than three-to-one lead (69 percent to 20 percent) over Whitman among Democrats. But Whitman's lead among Republicans is even grater, 77 percent to 13 percent. Independents split in Whitman's favor, 50 percent to 36 percent for Brown.

Whitman also holds huge leads over Brown among the roughly one-third of likely California voters who identify with the Tea Party movement. She scored better among middle-aged and older voters, while Brown was favored by younger voters. Both male and female voters preferred Whitman by small margins.

By comparison, Brown led Whitman last October 50 percent to 29 percent, but saw his lead shrink to 10 percentage points, 46 percent to 36 percent, in January.

Brown, a three-time presidential contender who served eight years as governor starting in 1975, only officially launched his campaign to succeed Republican incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger on March 2.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)