Californians still approve of Barack Obama’s performance as president and favor him over potential Republican rivals — but his own party’s voters say he should stop acting like a wimp.

These are some key conclusions to be drawn from a major new survey of political attitudes in the state, reported this week by the respected USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. It was a rare bit of good news for Obama, at a time when his overall approval ratings have plummeted across the country.

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According to the poll:

• Voters overall approve of his performance as president, 50 versus 43 percent, and he is viewed more favorably by three crucial blocs of Californians — women and nonpartisan, independent voters — who each give him a 55-percent positive rating — and Latinos, 59 percent of whom say they are satisfied with his performance.

• Republican voters now split their support between Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, with 22 percent each. In a week when the field of GOP hopefuls came to California for a televised debate at the Reagan Library, state Republicans were unenthused about Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Tea Party favorite whose campaign has largely collapsed since Perry entered the race. Only 10 percent of GOP voters favor her, placing her fourth, behind Representative Ron Paul.

• Statewide voters now back Obama against any Republican seeking the nomination to challenge him: In projected head-to-head matchups, the Democratic president leads Romney 54 vs. 35 percent, Perry 56 vs. 32 percent, and Bachmann 57 vs. 31 percent —  numbers showing that, for now at least, he is winning key support from independent, decline-to-state voters.

Not surprisingly, given the state of the economy and California’s 12-percent unemployment rate, there was also plenty of bad news for Obama.

Most importantly, nearly three of four voters say both the country (73 percent) and the state (71 percent) are on the wrong track, terrible numbers for an incumbent in any election defined as a referendum on his record. As a political matter, this means Obama instead will frame the election as a stark choice between him and a foe he will portray as too extreme to be president.

That strategy, however, depends on the president being able to generate enthusiasm among Democrats, many of whom are disaffected with what they see as Obama’s weakness and appeasement in dealing with congressional Republicans on issues like the deficit, taxes, and labor: Six in 10 Democratic voters said the president should “stand up to Republicans more and fight for my priorities,” compared to just one-third who said he should “compromise more with Republicans to solve problems.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the poll is the conflict between Obama’s public standing in California and the views of voters as reported in nationwide polls.

For example, a just-released survey from the Washington Post and ABC News found that a majority of voters nationwide — 53 percent — disapprove of his performance as president, and only 43 percent approve, the reverse of attitudes expressed by Californians; his 50-vs.-43-percent approval rating here represents a 17-point swing in Obama’s favor.

The contrast is an important reminder that a presidential race is not truly a national election, but rather 50 separate state elections, measured by the calculus of the Electoral College. Obama’s sustained backing in California, despite his long string of stinging political defeats that began with last year’s congressional elections, suggests that the state’s 55 electoral votes represent a strong base of support in his quest for the 270 he needs for reelection.

More than a year before the 2012 election, the president’s political challenge is to consolidate his base in California, plus 15 other traditionally Democratic states and the District of Columbia, which represent a total of 215 electoral votes; then he must win at least 55 in about a dozen battleground states that will determine the outcome, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

As one Democratic voter told the Times, however, Obama first needs to stop “ceding ground before you even fight the battle.”

A complete summary of the new poll is here, and the raw data is here.


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