By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California's Democratic governor is heading into the 2014 election season with a high approval rating if he decides to run for another term, according to a poll released late Wednesday.
Three-term Governor Jerry Brown received high marks from 58 percent of adults surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California, the think tank said, and 53 percent said they thought the state was headed in the right direction.
That is an improvement from a December poll when 47 percent said they approved of the governor's performance and a January 2013 survey that showed 51 percent approved.
Brown, whose current term marked the start of his second round as governor after serving from 1975 to 1983, has forcefully steered the most populous U.S. state toward the political middle despite wide Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature.
In his budget plan, released earlier this month, he called for a constitutional amendment to enshrine a rainy-day fund for the state, and resisted requests by fellow Democrats to spend more to restore social programs cut during the economic downturn.
Although he has not formally announced his re-election bid, Brown has been raising money for months and is increasingly sounding like a candidate, with higher-profile speeches, trips criss-crossing the state and greater media access.
His likely Republican opponents, Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly, have fared considerably poorer than the governor in such previous surveys as the USC/Los Angeles Times poll.
In the Public Policy Institute Poll of 1,706 adults, conducted from January 14-21, 53 percent of adults said they would choose Brown compared with 17 percent who favored Donnelly, a Republican who has the support of the Republican's Tea Party wing.
The Public Policy Institute poll had a margin of error of 3.8 percent.
Kashkari, who is more mainstream, announced his candidacy on the last day that the Public Policy Institute survey was being conducted, and was not included.
The poll showed that 76 percent of Democrats, who predominate in the state, approved of the job that Brown was doing, along with 57 percent of independents. Just 36 percent of those registered as Republicans approved.
But when party affiliation was taken out of the equation and voters were asked whether they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative, Brown got fairly high marks all around. Of liberals, 72 percent approved of Brown, along with 57 percent of moderates and 49 percent of conservatives.
In other issues, the Public Policy Institute Poll showed that 83 percent of Californians support a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and 58 percent said the state should make its own policies with regard to immigration if the federal government does not adopt reforms.
Immigration reform was passed by the U.S. Senate last year but stalled in the House, where it was held up by the Republican majority.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)