Sharp swings mark Republican governor's race in California

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman speaks to workers at a business in Redwood City.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman speaks to workers at a business in Redwood City. (Justin Sullivan/getty Images)
By Dan Balz
Monday, May 31, 2010

REDWOOD CITY, CALIF. -- At a time when California's economy ranks among the worst in the nation, there is still at least one bull market in the state. The battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination is recession-proof.

Front-runner Meg Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay, and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, have filled the state's television screens and mailboxes with a series of attacks over immigration and challenges to the other's conservative credentials.

Whitman, making her first bid for political office, has poured more than $80 million into her campaign, including nearly $70 million from her personal fortune. In the past two months, she spent $33.8 million, according to the most recent reports. Poizner is no slouch, either. He has dropped almost $25 million into the race, most of it his own.

The volley of charges and countercharges between Whitman and Poizner has produced a roller-coaster effect in the polls. Whitman once held a lead of more than 40 points. Poizner's attacks cut that to single digits this month, but Whitman's counterattacks have once again established her as the clear front-runner.

A poll by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times, released in Sunday's editions of the newspaper, showed Whitman at 53 percent to Poizner's 29 percent.

The winner will take on Democrat Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., the state attorney general and former governor, in a contest to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). The incumbent's popularity has plummeted in the face of the state's economic problems. California's unemployment rate is more than 12 percent, and the state budget faces a $20 billion deficit this year and long-term structural problems.

The USC-Los Angeles Times poll showed Brown leading Whitman and Poizner. Against Whitman, he led by 44 to 38 percent; against Poizner, he led by 45 to 31 percent.

The primary campaign may have cost Whitman more than part of her net worth. "Although she appears to be in a very strong position in the primary, she had to run hard to the right in order to do it," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "She spent the last month building up support among conservative voters, but if she wins the primary, she's going to have to figure out how to win back women and moderates."

This was not in Whitman's original game plan. Earlier this year, Mike Murphy, her chief strategist, contacted two Poizner strategists and encouraged them to persuade Poizner to drop out. If he stayed in, Murphy warned, the Whitman campaign would bury him in a barrage of negative attacks. "They tried to steamroll me out of the race," Poizner said.

Given the political leanings of the state, Whitman was anxious to run a general election campaign from the start and avoid a bidding war for conservative support. "Her campaign has been careful not to go too far to the right," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "Now along comes this guy who spends $25 million and pushes her to the right."

But Whitman also faced suspicions from conservatives. She supports abortion rights, and six years ago she backed Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for reelection.

Poizner struck hard, airing commercials criticizing Whitman as soft on illegal immigration and challenging her for ties to the Wall Street banking firm Goldman Sachs. The attacks, which coincided with passage of a controversial immigration law in Arizona and the Securities and Exchange Commission charging Goldman Sachs with fraud, took an immediate toll on Whitman among Republican voters.

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