Friday, May 7, 2010




For months, most so-called political experts in California assumed the fall race for governor will pit Republican billionaire Meg Whitman against Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

“In the annals of California political history, very few campaigns have been worse than that which Steve Poizner has run for governor,” longtime Republican consultant Tony Quinn, now an editor of the California Target Book political guide, wrote in a major newspaper. He used words like “keystone kops” to describe Poizner’s effort.

“(Poizner’s) campaign is finished,” intoned the Wall Street Journal.

And yet…For almost a month, public polls and private surveys by both Republican and Democratic politicians have shown Poizner narrowing a gap that once had him as far as 50 percentage points behind Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who has spent more than $60 million so far, barraging Californians with seemingly ubiquitous radio and television commercials for the last eight months.

Poizner, by contrast, chose to husband his money and didn’t begin his own ad campaign until mid-March. Six weeks into that effort, he had shaved between 20 percent and 30 percent off Whitman’s lead, causing her to stop talking much about her putative fall campaign against Brown and revert to earlier attacks on Poizner.

“We’re running as if we were 20 points behind,” Whitman press
secretary Sarah Pompei said. “We are taking nothing for granted.”

That’s a switch for Whitman, who told some audiences in March the Republican primary race was over.

This doesn’t surprise Poizner, who said all along that Whitman’s support might have been wide, but was also paper thin and would drop away when he went after her. His latest and most biting ads, which rip Whitman’s decade-long close ties to the scandal-ridden investment banking house of Goldman Sachs, do not even figure into the latest polling results. Nor does the pair's early-May debate, where Whitman turned plaintively to the camera and said to viewers, "I ask you not to judge me on the mistakes I've made, but on my ideas." Translation: Please watch what I say, not what I do.

California has seen plenty of political comebacks, both in primary and general elections. One reason is that many voters don’t begin focusing seriously until about four to six weeks before Election Day.

One classic turnaround, in 2002, saw Republican financier Bill Simon come from more than 30 points behind former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in less than one month to win the GOP’s nomination against then-Gov. Gray Davis. That was a classic race between a moderate Republican (Riordan) and a conservative.

So it’s no accident that many Poizner ads call him the “real Republican” and identify Whitman with current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who never won a Republican primary and is regarded by some GOP voters as a “RINO” – Republican in name only.

Poizner’s closest aides say they never paid attention to outsiders who once called their campaign pathetic. “A lot of influential people wrote us off a long time ago, but we’ll wait for the voters,” said Jarrod Agen, Poizner’s communications director. “I think we’ll prove the experts wrong.”

He says private polling for Poizner showed his turnaround beginning in mid-April, just after his first large-scale television buy. Agen said ads linking Whitman with Schwarzenegger and his political cadre have been effective. Expect more of them.

Echoing Brown’s campaign manager Steve Glazer, Agen claimed Whitman’s big spending bought her little besides name recognition. “A lot of voters now know who she is,” he said. “But the depth of commitment to her is very low. Plus, she was the only one advertising for a long time, which made any poll taken during that time misleading.”

One thing to note: Poizner didn’t go strongly negative against Whitman until early May. Until then, his ads said nothing about her involvement with the Goldman Sachs investment banking house that's now under federal prosecution for fraud. Expect this race to become much tighter, perhaps even a tossup, after voters begin digesting the new spots.

“There is no doubt Whitman’s numbers are going down,” Agen said. “Voters are shifting as they see Steve’s ads.”

Poizner counted on that all along. Refusing to respond in kind when Whitman took to the airwaves early, he was convinced he would reach voters when they were ready to pay attention. So far, that’s working out for him.

One sign of this is the fact that Whitman’s own commercials, which began attacking Poizner last winter and then turned more positive, took a new turn toward the negative in late April.

For sure, if Poizner pulls off the comeback he has so often predicted, it will be the most dramatic in California political history. But it will guarantee nothing in the fall, as Simon learned when Davis drubbed him in the 2002 runoff election.

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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