Gov. Jerry Brown scores a 60 percent job approval rating among likely voters in a new statewide poll.

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Jerry Brown may be the most clearly running-but-not-an-official-candidate in California's 2014 election cycle so far, but a new statewide poll makes it clear: he is the clear odds on favorite to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor in November.

The Wednesday night survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California finds Brown with a 60 percent job approval rating among likely voters – his highest marks since taking office in 2011 – and even broader support for the overall path he's chosen for a proposed state budget.

The new data comes as his two would-be Republican challengers ramp up their criticism of the incumbent and their efforts to get some attention in what otherwise could be a lopsided 2014 gubernatorial race. Much of the recent clamor has come from newcomer Neel Kashkari, a GOP first-time candidate who last week called Brown "lazy" in his efforts to improve California's economy.

This survey shows the steep hill ahead for Kashkari and fellow GOP gubernatorial challenger, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.

PPIC finds majority support for Governor Brown in almost every subset of Californians; only residents of the Inland Empire and Republicans are more displeased than pleased with his job performance. But even then, Brown's ability to win over skeptics seems notable: 36 percent of GOP voters actually like the Democratic governor's work in the PPIC survey.

His support is most prominent among Democrats (76 percent); independent voters (57 percent); Latinos (63 percent); and voters in the all-important Los Angeles region (58 percent).

The poll asked voters only about GOP challenger Donnelly, as most of the polling was done before Kashkari's Jan. 21 formal campaign announcement. In a hypothetical matchup, PPIC found Brown strongly ahead of Donnelly, 53 percent to 17 percent.

The Democratic incumbent has made it clear in the past three weeks that he intends to push hard in 2014 for more restraint than legislators may want in a new state budget, and the new poll seems to validate the veteran pol's approach. 75 percent of likely voters in the PPIC survey support the governor's plan when read a brief overview; support among Republicans even clocks in at a strong 66 percent.

Brown also scores well on his pledge to work on a strengthen state budget reserve, something legislative Democrats have also vowed to place on the fall ballot. 64 percent of likely voters say they like this idea.

"The idea of having a rainy day fund is highly popular in the context of a drought emergency and budget surplus this year," said PPIC pollster and president Mark Baldassare.

And here's what else likely bolsters Brown's backers and should give pause to his would-be challengers in this poll: a general sense of optimism that big things will get done in 2014 in Sacramento. 51 percent of likely voters and 57 percent of all adults polled think the governor and legislators will accomplish a lot in the year ahead; even 33 percent of Republicans agree with that assessment. Even further in the sunny skies department, 53 percent of adults say things in California are headed in the right direction.

But here's where Republicans will no doubt see their opening: among likely voters, the 'right direction/wrong direction' drops to almost an even split, 47 percent to 48 percent. And for GOP challenger Kashkari, who has taken to Twitter to utter his "jobs and education" mantra 13 times in just the first two and a half days of this week, may be on to something; PPIC's poll finds 39 percent of likely voters rank one of those two items at the top of their list of important items to improve in California.

Still, Brown appears to be sitting quite comfortably in this poll, released just two weeks before the formal candidate filing season begins. The governor has made an art form out of avoiding any declaration of his candidacy for another term. As the campaign season begins, it's easy to see on what issues both he and his would-be challengers will be focusing their attention.

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