New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a solid advantage with Californians likely to vote in the Feb. 5 Democratic presidential primary, but an old friend could significantly change the math should he decide to run, according to a Field Poll released Monday.
Former Vice President and 2000 party nominee Al Gore, who has waved off speculation that he may run again _ but has not ruled it out entirely _ pulled to within a handful of percentage points of Clinton when pollsters added his name to the mix.
"He is formidable in California," said Mark DiCamillo, Field Poll director. "He makes it a very close race."
The poll found Clinton with a comfortable 13-point head start over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, 41 percent to 28 percent, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards lagging at 13 percent.
But when Gore's name was offered as an alternative, Clinton's support dropped 10 points to 31 percent, followed by Gore's 25 percent and Obama's 21 percent. Edwards fell to 8 percent.
Gore has also been west this spring, perhaps most notably to collect an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth," his acclaimed documentary on the perils of global warming. His youth-oriented cable television station, Current, is based in San Francisco, and the Field Poll showed him slightly ahead of Clinton in that Democrat-rich part of the state.
Gore boasted the highest favorable rating _ 85 percent _ among the four top Democrats in the poll, but respondents also gave high marks to Clinton, Edwards and Obama. Ten months from Election Day in California, only 9 percent of likely voters in the Democratic primary said they were undecided, an unusually low portion DiCamillo attributed to the celebrity of the leading contenders.
Frank Reed, a retired engineer from Garden Valley, told pollsters he preferred Gore because he has the best chance to prevail against the Republican nominee. "But I like Obama, too," he said. "I like Clinton. And I like Edwards."
Gore led Clinton slightly among voters who decline to state a party preference but told pollsters they would cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Democratic Party rules allow independents to vote in the primary, while the Republican Party restricts participation in its primary to GOP registrants.
DiCamillo noted that the poll's sample size for independent voters was small, as they are expected to make up but 13 percent of voters in the Democratic primary.
Four other candidates in the poll _ New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd _ trailed far behind the top tier, with solid majorities saying there was "no chance" they would vote for Kucinich, Biden or Dodd and 49 percent ruling out Richardson.
Conducted March 20-31 via telephone, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.