SACRAMENTO — For years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has treated fellow Republicans with a combination of indifference and thinly veiled contempt.
Now, as they vie to succeed him in 2010, the party's two leading candidates for governor are responding in similar fashion.
By criticizing his painstakingly crafted budget, actively opposing several of his ballot measures and, more subtly, jabbing at his work habits and ego, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner are striving to distance themselves from the unpopular Schwarzenegger and tap widespread GOP anger over the incumbent's broken pledge not to raise taxes. It is, in the words of a strategist involved in the race, a competition to become "the anti-Arnold."
It is also an effort to persuade voters -- starting with Republicans -- to trust a pair of candidates with backgrounds similar to Schwarzenegger, who are making some of the same promises he did when he first ran for governor 5 1/2 years ago.
"There's going to be a lot of skepticism, especially among the broad electorate, about what kind of experience is the prerequisite for being a successful governor of California," said Don Sipple, a media strategist who helped elect the neophyte Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election. "People think the Schwarzenegger experience didn't work out so well, and they're going to be looking for something very different."
The race for governor is still in its early stages, a time when mainly activists and political insiders are paying attention. That helps explain why Whitman and Poizner are positioning themselves against the governor and taking some of their contrarian stances. Both are competing for the support of die-hard Republicans, the ones likeliest to vote in the June 2010 primary and the ones who, not incidentally, are unhappiest with Schwarzenegger.
Poizner and Whitman not only oppose the $42-billion budget-balancing package the governor negotiated with the Democratic-run Legislature but also three ballot measures, Propositions 1A, 1B and 1C, that would keep the deal intact. "Before asking taxpayers for more money, government should cut bureaucracy, cut spending further, improve efficiency and provide better services for less," Whitman wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month in the Sacramento Bee.
Poizner said he opposes the three measures as well as three others on the ballot, Propositions 1D, 1E and 1F, because of the "backroom wheeling and dealing" between Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers that resulted in the May 19 special election. "The result was not real structural reform," he said in an interview.
Poizner praised the initial steps taken by Schwarzenegger to change Sacramento. He never directly criticized the governor, but he said his administration would be "quite different" from the current one, joking that he has "never been confused with Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"I'm an engineer," said Poizner, the state insurance commissioner and a Silicon Valley mega-millionaire. "I'm an entrepreneur. I fix things, build things."
Whitman, a former EBay executive making her first run for elected office, has been more pointed. She told the New York Times "the next governor of California is going to have to plant herself in Sacramento 24/7, 365 days a year," a comment taken as criticism of Schwarzenegger's frequent absence from the capital. She told Fortune magazine that "being CEO of the state is not a popularity contest," an apparent jibe at Schwarzenegger's reputed vanity.
A spokesman said Whitman was not available for comment.
"Any disagreement with the governor is strictly based on policy and has nothing to do with how she feels personally," said Whitman spokesman Mitch Zak.
Poizner and Whitman have yet to offer concrete solutions for closing the state's budget gap, which has grown by several billion dollars since lawmakers and the governor narrowly reached their agreement. They speak in broad generalities about running California like a business, and they fiercely oppose higher taxes -- echoing positions that Schwarzenegger took during the recall campaign. Then, he said California's fiscal ills could be cured with stringent auditing and a willingness to "blow up the boxes" of state government.
That poses a problem for his would-be successors.
"It's natural for people to ask, 'If you're promising the same things Arnold promised in 2003, why should we believe you, given what he's done?' " said an advisor to one of the Republicans running, who did not want to be identified criticizing the governor. "There is a need to distinguish themselves from him in order to establish their own rationales of candidacy."
The third major GOP candidate, former congressman and state budget director Tom Campbell, has broken with the others by supporting the budget deal, taxes and all, and endorsing Proposition 1A. The measure would create spending restraints and extend the tax hikes from two to four years. Campbell has not taken a position on the other measures.