By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - City Councilman Eric Garcetti leads City Controller Wendy Greuel by 7 percentage points in a tightening race for mayor of Los Angeles, according to the latest opinion poll, but the survey's director said Greuel could still stage an upset in Tuesday's election.
The poll released late on Friday by the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy and the Los Angeles Times showed Garcetti favored by 48 percent of likely voters, compared with 41 percent for Greuel. Eleven percent of respondents said they were undecided.
The survey, conducted from Tuesday through Thursday, showed a narrowing of the race since a survey a month earlier by the same researchers gave Garcetti a 10-point lead over Greuel.
Garcetti was also the favored candidate among the 48 percent of poll respondents who had already voted by mail, versus 42 percent for Greuel.
Tuesday's vote is a runoff between the two veteran Democrats, who in March were the top vote-getters in a primary election in which Garcetti got 33 percent and Greuel 29 percent. One of them would have had to have won more than 50 percent of the ballots cast to have been elected outright.
They are vying to replace Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is stepping down after eight years because of term limits.
The non-partisan campaign has centered on what Greuel and Garcetti agree is a dire financial outlook facing America's second most populous metropolis, and the political clout commanded by the city's public employee unions.
The city's chief accountant has projected a $1.1 billion cumulative deficit over the next four years.
Garcetti, 42, is a former president of the Los Angeles City Council, where he has held office since 2001. He is also the son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who was the city's top prosecutor during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s.
Greuel, 51, was a councilwoman before she became controller in 2009. She also served in former Mayor Tom Bradley's administration.
Surveys released earlier this month by the Edmund G. Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs and Survey USA found the two candidates in a statistical tie.
The latest USC Price/LA Times poll indicated Garcetti had built a lead by forging an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative supporters and by winning over voters in the suburban and largely middle-class San Fernando Valley, which had been expected to be Greuel's stronghold.
'RACE CERTAINLY NOT OVER'
Dan Schnur, director of the USC Price/LA Times poll, said in a statement that "this race is certainly not over," given expectations for low voter turnout on Tuesday and the high number of voters who remain undecided.
"This campaign has turned into a referendum on Wendy Greuel, and more specifically her support from public employee unions," Schnur said.
Greuel has the backing of the union for workers at the city Department of Water and Power, which has contributed about $2 million to her campaign, while the police officers' union has given over $1.4 million to groups supporting her candidacy.
Garcetti leads Greuel in campaign spending overall, with $9.4 million, compared with her expenditures of $8.9 million, according to figures from the City Ethics Commission. Much of that money has gone to a slew of negative television ads from both sides.
The USC Price/LA Times poll sampled 500 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)