By Dan Balz
Monday, May 31, 2010; A03
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.
She sought to rebut the immigration attacks with hard-edged commercials of her own. She called in former Republican governor Pete Wilson, who championed the anti-illegal-immigration Prop 187 during his 1994 reelection campaign. He said Whitman would be "as tough as nails" on illegal immigration. Whitman said she is "100 percent against amnesty."
Still, she has struggled to explain her past and current positions on the issue. She said she would have opposed Prop 187, and she opposes the new Arizona law. In September, while touring the U.S.-Mexican border, she was quoted as saying it was "simply not practical" to round up and deport the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Instead, she said she favored a way to make it possible for them to remain as legal residents. "Can we get a fair program where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine, they do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization?" she asked, according to the paper.
Many opponents of comprehensive immigration reform call that amnesty, but Whitman insists she was misunderstood. "What I was referring to actually was a guest-worker program," she said in an interview Friday.
When pressed, she said her lack of familiarity with the issue and her newness to politics had caused the misunderstanding. "When you're new to politics, sometimes you use words that have like a meaning to people who have been in politics for 20 years," she explained.
Poizner scoffed. "She can say I changed my mind," he said. "She can say that, and people can evaluate whether they like her changing her mind. That's not what she's saying. She's saying I've never been for amnesty, I'm not for amnesty, no amnesty, no way. Then either she doesn't know what the word means or she's being dishonest."
Whitman is gambling that she can walk close to the line on issues crucial to the GOP base and still preserve room to reach back to independent or moderate voters in a general election. But if she wins the primary, she will be pressed to redouble efforts to win over Latino voters, given what she has said about immigration over the past few weeks.
"Whitman's position on illegal immigration, which has moved considerably to the right, will be used to try to corral as many Latino voters to the Democratic side as possible," said Mark DiCamillo, who directs the Field Poll in California. "That's going to be a very big deal."
Whitman said her background as a corporate executive gives her the expertise to attack the overriding problems facing the state. "The number one issue we face in California is jobs and the economy," she said. "That is my wheelhouse. That is what I know better than any other candidate running in this race. . . . Jerry Brown will not take on the status quo. He is the status quo. I think I have the skills and the temperament and the ability to do it."
Brown lacks Whitman's financial means, but he is a resourceful politician.