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Will it be Gavin Newsom vs. little-known Republican for California governor?

Gavin Newsom speaks at Democratic National Convention

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A Republican newcomer now leads the pack of candidates trailing frontrunner Gavin Newsom in next year’s race for California governor, according to a new statewide poll Wednesday.

Among the five announced candidates, Newsom, who as lieutenant governor has been grooming himself for the top elected position, is out ahead with support from 28 percent of voters, the Berkeley IGS Poll found. Running behind him at 18 percent is John Cox, a Republican businessman from Rancho Santa Fe who announced his candidacy earlier this month.

The pair are followed by three Democrats: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at 11 percent, Treasurer John Chiang at 8 percent and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin at 3 percent. Nearly a third of voters remain undecided.

Reflecting a trend from previous public polls, Newsom – who has never trailed in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown – has gathered the largest share of Democratic voters. He continues to hold a considerable advantage with his party faithful, 40 percent to 15 percent for Villaraigosa, 11 percent for Chiang and 5 percent for Eastin.

“That is what’s driving his lead,” Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The two highest vote-getters in the June 2018 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the general election. Newsom’s history of yoking himself to liberal causes, including issues that elicit strong emotional responses, has kept him in the public’s consciousness. After leading a pair of fall ballot initiatives – to legalize recreational marijuana and strengthen gun control laws – he’s slowly ramped up his personal appearances with town hall-style events in San Diego and Hollister, in San Benito County. He also is backed by more than 4-in-10 Bay Area voters.

Cox, the lone Republican to formally declare his candidacy, is supported by 55 percent of GOP voters. Villaraigosa does best with Latinos, and Chiang fares well among non-Hispanic ethnic voting constituencies.

The former Los Angeles mayor talks timing about his possible run for governor on Nov. 1, 2016.

Twenty-eight percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats are undecided in the June 2018 contest, but 47 percent of unaligned voters had no opinion.

The uncertain nature of the race, particularly for second place in the primary election, could shuffle the field before next spring’s filing deadline. The UC Berkeley poll, conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies, also looked at a hypothetical ballot involving five additional candidates.

Under the speculative scenario, Newsom remains the favorite at 24 percent, but Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Cox are tied for second at 11 percent (Faulconer has said he does not plan to run).

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who earlier this month romped to re-election, at this point appears to be the most viable Democrat not in the governor’s race. When the polling includes him, he receives 9 percent support, followed by Villaraigosa at 7 percent and Chiang at 6 percent.

Garcetti is leaving his options open and hasn’t ruled out running for U.S. Senate next year should Dianne Feinstein retire.

Democrats near the bottom of the pack are billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer at 4 percent, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León at 3 percent and former state Controller Steve Westly at 2 percent. Steyer and Westly, given their personal wealth, don’t have to make an immediate decision about running because they don’t face the same fundraising pressures other candidates do.

De León, who has been weighing his options, is raising money into a committee for lieutenant governor, though he could run for another statewide office.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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