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THE WEEK

Politics isn't just about the money

Steve Poizner, Meg Whitman and Tom Campbell stretch to grab the state GOP's 2010 endorsement.

September 20, 2009|Cathleen Decker

Running for governor can be alluring. The crowds applaud, the staff genuflects; even the persistent frustrations of traffic melt away in the back seat of a luxury vehicle piloted from event to event by someone else.

But there are times, and last week was one of them, when running for governor can also take on the feel of a fraternity hazing, when the candidates are not masters of the universe but, rather, supplicants.

That is particularly true in this phase of the campaign -- nine months before the June 2010 primary -- when the emphasis is on selling your candidacy to your party's truest believers.

In the last week, the two best-funded Republican candidates for governor, independently wealthy Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman, each made moves that betrayed their worries that many members of the party they want to represent are not quite sold on them.

Poizner found himself almost prostrate before the anti-tax crusading talk show hosts John and Ken of Los Angeles' KFI-AM (640), signing a no-new-taxes pledge. The move was meant at least in part to erase years of concern among activists about his fealty on economic policy. Whitman turned over $250,000 of her own money to help finance Republican voter registration efforts. Her step was meant in part to erase concerns among activists about her loyalty to a party she joined in 2007.

Of the two, Poizner's action was the most dramatic, if only because it was so public. He spent the week talking to owners of small businesses in several parts of California, but his audience with John and Ken stood to earn him far more attention, and he knew it.

"The reason that I'm here is you guys are the champions on taxes," he said during the appearance, which the radio hosts said was requested by Poizner's team. The candidate added for good measure: "By the way, what an honor to be surrounded by John and Ken here."

The reason he wanted to be surrounded by John and Ken was to sign a pledge not to raise taxes -- two pledges, actually, one to be sent back to Washington to the national organization that minds such things and one to be posted on the wall in John and Ken's studio.

Poizner left unspoken the reason he was making such an effort. Put simply: Many Republican activists don't trust him on taxes, a keenly important issue to Republican primary voters.

In 2004, in an unsuccessful race for a Northern California Assembly seat, Poizner had refused to sign a no-tax pledge, according to news reports at the time. Conservative blogs last week also recounted his past support of California measures that made it easier to raise taxes in order to boost money for schools.

This time around, he is determined to convince anti-tax voters that he has embraced their position. His hosts, without mentioning his history, bluntly stated the consequences were he to backslide.

"You have no idea how angry we'll be if you defy this tax pledge," said Ken Chiampou.

"Not only will I not raise taxes, not only will I veto every attempt to raise taxes, I will lower taxes for the people of the state of California," Poizner said repeatedly. "You can count on that."

Poizner restated his new tax plan -- a 10% reduction in personal income tax, sales tax and corporations tax rates and a 50% cut in capital gains tax rates.

He said the state, already laboring under persistent deficits as revenues fall, would flourish rather than suffer if he got his way: "Cut tax rates and revenues will go up." His campaign disputed a question about how much money would be lost to the treasury, insisting that even in the first year, tax revenues would blossom. His aides also declined to estimate how much would go into the pockets of Californians if the tax cuts were made.

Poizner was not alone in making peacemaking moves. Whitman's $250,000 donation to the state party looked to be a let-bygones-be-bygones gesture for any party members still chafing over her recent move to the Republican ranks.

Not so, her campaign said. "It's all about Meg's commitment to rebuilding the Republican party," said spokeswoman Sarah Pompei. "The best way to do that is to get more Republicans registered to vote."

Without the hefty bank accounts of Poizner and Whitman, the third Republican candidate for governor, former congressman Tom Campbell, spent last week to talking about an issue more identified with the opposite party.

He released a massive healthcare plan, complete with 36 footnotes. Its specifics were reminiscent of the carefully crafted budget proposal he put forward earlier this year, which has yet to be matched in detail by any of the other candidates.

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