The GOP’s high-octane, high-dollar race for governor of California ends Tuesday, when Meg Whitman, a political newcomer with extra-deep pockets and key establishment support, faces off against state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Following a campaign that has turned particularly bruising over the past month, however, insiders openly wonder whether Republicans can unite to face their real target this fall: Democrat State Attorney General Jerry Brown.
Recent polls show Whitman, a billionaire who until March 2008 was eBay’s chief executive officer, has regained a solid edge over Poizner despite his biting attacks of her stands on illegal immigration and stock deals she received through her relationship with Goldman Sachs. Poizner’s spring offensive on immigration hobbled Whitman, forcing her to fight back; In a move that could haunt her this fall, she launched a 60-second TV ad in which she vowed to send the National Guard to the border to combat illegal immigrants. In a radio spot, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, best known in GOP circles for his tough stance on illegal immigrants, touts Whitman’s staunch opposition to amnesty.
Notably, one Republican who has remained on the sidelines in the gubernatorial race is the current GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose low approval ratings have forced both Whitman and Poizner to keep their distance, even as they hire his key political advisers and embrace some of his policy positions. The candidates’ maneuvering has left some conservatives skeptical about their ideological purity. (Whitman, for example, is an outspoken supporter of abortion rights and, six years ago, she backed liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for re-election).
“I am not convinced we can trust Meg Whitman, as her history is rife with liberal statements and actions,” Marc Harris, a Tea Party coordinator for Southern California, wrote recently in a memo to activists. While he said he believed Poizner was the “real deal” and “one of us,” the Tea Party remains split between him and two lesser known conservative candidates, Ken Miller and Larry Naritelli.
For his part, Brown, who’s seeking to return to the governor’s office 36 years after he was first elected, has remained uncharacteristically quiet, husbanding his campaign cash for a general-election race that’s likely to break all state spending records. Nonetheless, Brown released his campaign’s first ad this week, criticizing the Republican candidates for running a negative campaign that fails to address California voters’ priorities: the economy and jobs.
In her defense, Whitman is doing her part to singlehandedly revive the state’s lagging economy. As of May 22, her campaign had spent more than $80 million to run a months-long blitz of TV ads and mailers that have solidified her position as the GOP frontrunner. So far, she has donated a record $68 million of her own money to the year-long campaign. (Poizner has dropped almost $25 million into the race, most of it his own).
Recent polls show Brown leads both Whitman and Poizner by double digits. But, like many things in California politics, that could change quickly.
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