Saturday, May 15, 2010




Remarkable change has come to the hyper-expensive run for the Republican nomination for governor, and it goes beyond mere polls. Suddenly there is no more whining from rivals about Meg Whitman’s money and her willingness to spend it.

The reason: beyond much doubt, this race has tightened considerably, demonstrating that Whitman didn’t get as much for her money as she hoped.

The former eBay chief executive has thus far dropped 59 million of her own dollars, plus about $10 million from other donors, into the most expensive state primary campaign in American history. Through the first three months of this year, she spent $249 per minute.

If she ends up losing despite a massive early lead, she will also demonstrate it is folly to spend too much too early.

After months of bombardment by Whitman ads, claims Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for fast-closing rival Steve Poizner, the current state insurance commissioner, GOP primary voters are hungry for some other message. “She did great when she was the only one out there,” he said. “But after hearing only one side for so long, people become receptive to a different message.”

Stevens says Poizner’s internal polling indicates the blatantly belittling tone of some Whitman TV potshots at Poizner also turned off many voters, leaving them open to Poizner’s return volleys at Whitman when he began airing them last month.

The all-but-certain Democratic candidate this fall, former Gov. and current Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, meanwhile has spent almost nothing and leads both Republicans in some polls.

There is little doubt a lot of the whining about spending by eMeg, as some call Whitman, was purely sour grapes and envy. As Whitman’s once-commanding lead shrank, Brown, for example, stopped saying he has not “lived the corporate life of flying around in private jets and having people do exactly what I tell them.” Nor has Poizner, who has put $19 million into his own campaign so far and possesses a fortune comparable to Whitman’s, complained lately about her “trying to buy the election.” Poizner never appeared to see how ironic that lament was, coming from him.

The fact is that while Whitman would be nowhere without her cash, her effort has not been entirely about big spending. She has traveled the state as extensively as any candidate ever, speaking to town halls and Republican groups in small towns and big cities.

By contrast, Brown has run the California equivalent of a “Rose Garden” primary campaign, mostly staying at home in Oakland.

Poizner also has traveled the state extensively, but was at first so hesitant about spending his money that in the down days of his campaign, some aides wondered if he would really spend as much as might be needed to win. The very different question now is whether all her early spending actually hurt Whitman, while Poizner was smart to husband his money. Poizner’s latest polling showed him trailing Whitman 38-28 percent, far closer than the 59-11 percent deficit the same pollster found in February.

For sure, Whitman has made mistakes not at all related to cash. She sounded like the political rookie she is while suggesting state legislators should organize into teams around specific issues. Didn’t she know every legislature from Congress down sets up committees that take on issues by category? Similarly, she announced she would have the attorney general take certain kinds of legal actions, then had to backtrack when informed the state’s top lawyer doesn’t work for the governor.

Those mistakes echoed some early errors by the recalled ex-Gov. Gray Davis, who allowed soon after being elected that the Legislature “exists to implement my vision,” and by current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who issued orders to the attorney general only to see them laughed off.

But Whitman’s non-stop advertising barrage drowned out her errors for awhile.

Similarly, voters didn’t seem to care much when Whitman refused for months to meet with most reporters. (She did sit for a telephone interview with this column as early as last September.) There was also little immediate effect when a website claimed her proposal to eliminate state capital gains taxes would cut her own state tax bill in half.

Compared with the juggernaut early feel of her overall campaign and her insistence on talking about jobs, government spending and education to the exclusion of almost everything else, these items seemed insignificant.

But maybe they really weren’t, if they helped set the stage for Poizner’s effective thrusts at her links to the Goldman Sachs investment bank, with which Poizner also has had some dealings.

The bottom line: Whitman’s money has bought her name recognition and the right to be taken seriously. But any serious candidate must contend with tough questions about past actions and words. This, of course, can lead to defeat if that past is at all questionable and if an opponent can buy enough ads to inform the voters about it.

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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