LOS ANGELES -- Prodded by many Republicans to pull out of the gubernatorial recall race, state Sen. Tom McClintock found strength Friday in new poll numbers that show him gaining on both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
The Los Angeles Times poll released late Thursday also showed support growing for another underdog: Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Likely voters were nearly split over whether to recall the governor, after weeks of polls showing heavy support for his removal.
The survey of 922 likely voters, conducted Sept. 6 to 10, found that 50 percent would vote yes on recalling Davis and 47 percent would vote no. The poll's sampling error margin was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
When asked to choose Davis' replacement -- a separate question on the Oct. 7 ballot -- 30 percent of likely voters picked Bustamante, 25 percent picked Schwarzenegger and 18 percent chose McClintock. McClintock's support rose by 6 percentage points from the last poll, compared to 3 points for Schwarzenegger.
"The momentum's entirely on my side, we're now pulling into a three-person race and there's still almost four weeks to go until the election," McClintock told KSTE-AM in Sacramento on Friday morning.
"I began this campaign as an asterisk, Arnold began it in the mid-to-low 20s," McClintock said. "Now I'm in the high teens, he's still in the mid-to-low 20s. That ought to tell you a lot right there."
Schwarzenegger aides dismissed McClintock's claim of momentum, saying the Times poll results do not reflect other public polls or the campaign's private polling.
"We fully expect that as Election Day comes closer Republicans will want to have someone who can win in office and that person is Arnold Schwarzenegger," Schwarzenegger spokesman Sean Walsh said.
As the state GOP's biannual convention got under way Friday at a hotel, many party members were struggling over whether to stand behind McClintock, a candidate perceived as an uncompromising conservative, or Schwarzenegger, who is more moderate and who many believe has a better chance of winning. Schwarzenegger was to address the delegates at noon Saturday, and McClintock was delivering a speech that evening.
The activists who attend such gatherings tend to be conservative and Schwarzenegger's support for abortion rights, refusal to take a no-taxes pledge and support for gun laws make him less congenial to them than McClintock. But Schwarzenegger's backers cite polls showing he can beat Bustamante if Davis is recalled and want McClintock to drop out.
The leader of one conservative group wants to meet Schwarzenegger over the weekend to see if it can endorse him.
Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth political action committee, said Friday he is trying to meet with Schwarzenegger to get assurances from him "that he believes the things that we do," such as capping spending, reforming workers' compensation and making the tax system more competitive.
Some Republicans consider the Club for Growth a divisive element in their party, as it has backed mostly unsuccessful but expensive primary fights against Republican incumbents. In Pennsylvania, they're supporting conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey's primary battle against Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican.
The convention was beginning Friday with private meetings and a dinner banquet where the leaders of the recall petition drive, including its primary funder Rep. Darrell Issa, were to be celebrated. Schwarzenegger planned a separate news conference Friday afternoon with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has endorsed him, and was to address voters later at a town hall meeting in San Diego.
McClintock has challenged Schwarzenegger to a one-on-one debate at the convention, an offer Schwarzenegger's campaign has refused. The actor has agreed to participate in only one debate, a Sept. 24 forum in Sacramento that also will feature other candidates.
But Schwarzenegger and McClintock ended up in a debate of sorts Friday morning. The hosts of a Sacramento talk radio program, "Armstrong & Getty" on KSTE-AM, arranged a surprise on-air confrontation between the two during which McClintock asked Schwarzenegger repeatedly to debate him and Schwarzenegger demurred, saying they will have the chance to debate Sept. 24.
"I'm more than happy to get together with you any time to discuss any of those things," Schwarzenegger told McClintock. "The most important thing we have to do is, we have to win this election."