Sunday, November 8, 2009




If there’s one surprise so far in the budding campaign for governor of California, it’s the fact that the candidate with the least cash on hand is somehow staying extremely competitive. So much so that the leading fear of his super-rich intra-party rivals is that he will somehow, somewhere come up with significant funds – and blow them out.

What has Tom Campbell done so far and how does he do it? From the very start of this race, he’s run either first or second in the polls. In the most recent Field Poll, taken while billionaire former eBay chief Meg Whitman was airing weeks of radio ads, Campbell was only two percentage points behind among Republicans, while Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner placed a distant third.

“I think it’s because of the new media,” said Campbell, who estimated he had $300,000 on hand late last month, while his opponents had war chests well into the multi-millions. By new media, oddly, Campbell doesn’t mean the Internet. Rather, he’s talking telephones.

Campbell calls his new tactic “tele-town halls,” but they’re actually much larger than the live ones staged by many members of Congress. His first seven drew 280,000 participants, all responding to robocalls inviting them to press 1 on their telephones and join the town hall. Only registered Republicans who have voted in the last four elections were called.

“These only cost us $25,000 apiece and they all had at least 5,000 to 7,000 people who stayed with it five minutes or more,” Campbell said. “I’ve never before seen a town hall with that many people. About one-fifth of those who come on actually stay for more than five minutes.”

He thinks those participants have influence far beyond their numbers. Hence his poll standing, he believes.

But plenty of so-called experts think Campbell’s chances could founder once his rivals begin airing their inevitable television commercials.

“He’s doing so well because none of the others has begun advertising seriously yet,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican consultant who now heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Campbell doesn’t evince much fear of that, plowing ahead with both his new media and riding a surge of post-poll fundraising that should shortly put his campaign kitty over the $1 million mark. The usual major California campaign requires at least $30 million for a respectable showing.

“If I had more money, I’d be doing more of the same,” says Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman, ex-state budget director and a longtime Stanford professor who later became dean of the business school at UC Berkeley. “I would also be more active on the Web. I’ve made my Web site as content-filled as any I’ve ever seen, but I would use extra money to pay for more advertising links to the site on search engines like Google and Yahoo.”

Content-filled. There’s a phrase that pretty much describes the Campbell campaign style. While rivals promise to create jobs and cut government spending, Campbell has produced detailed blueprints for balanced future state budgets and even a water plan.

You might not like his ideas, but no one in this campaign has matched him for the kind of specifics most candidates won’t go near.

Take the no-new-taxes pledge his opponents and most other Republican politicians have taken with alacrity. Campbell won’t touch it.

“It’s wise to keep one’s flexibility if you want to govern effectively,” he says, while observing that “there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.” He cites a new tax on medical insurers that the health insurance industry itself helped pass. “It qualifies the state for four times as much federal money as the tax involves, and by doing that pays for itself by bringing new customers to the health insurers,” he said. “You couldn’t back this if you took a no-new-taxes pledge. That would be counter-productive.”

But don’t mistake Tom Campbell for profligate. His budget blueprint would limit spending increases to the level of inflation and population growth. “My plan is not politically correct for either the general public or Republican primary voters,” he said. “But I know it’s what we need to do.”

The same for his water plan, which backs a new Peripheral Canal-style conveyance around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and would expand or create new reservoirs, while refilling underground aquifers. He would finance this with bonds to be paid off by water users rather than from the state’s general fund.

This, then, is not your mine-run feel-good candidate. Rather, he’s pushing what his governmental expertise suggests to him are the best policies for the entire state. Unfiltered by a staff of so-called “experts.” “I’m my own research director,” he says.

Maybe California is ready for this kind of substance after six years of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glitz and the accompanying decline. Maybe that’s the real reason Campbell stays high in the polls even while his bank account is low.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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