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Top Republican GOP candidates joust at convention

Poizner attacks Whitman's record as a nonvoter. Campbell mocks front-runners' budget plans.

September 27, 2009|Michael Finnegan

INDIAN WELLS — The battle for the Republican nomination to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a nasty turn Saturday as a trio of Silicon Valley candidates tussled over fiscal plans and contender Meg Whitman's apparent failure to vote until she was 46 years old.

Most aggressive was state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a mapping software mogul who called on Whitman to drop out of the race for the good of the party. The former chief executive of EBay, he argued, would lead Republicans to certain defeat in a general election, thanks to the civic indifference indicated by her voting record.

"There's never been a person elected governor anywhere in this country with a voting record like hers," Poizner said. "I mean 28 years of not voting at all, not even being registered to vote -- meaning she had no intention of even voting -- is something that will make her really not qualified."

Whitman promptly rejected Poizner's demand. "I can imagine that Steve Poizner would like me to get out of the race, and it's not happening," said Whitman, who has put more than $19 million of her personal fortune into the race.

The Whitman-Poizner rivalry dominated the state Republican Party's weekend convention here at a scorching golf resort near Palm Springs. Both also took incoming shots over their budget plans from a third opponent, Tom Campbell, but only mild ones, in keeping with the former Bay Area congressman's genteel manner.

For Whitman, 53, a newcomer to electoral politics, the gathering was sullied by a Sacramento Bee article last week that revealed there was no record she had registered to vote until 2002.

The story aggravated the troubles Whitman was already facing for not voting in four statewide elections since then, including the 2003 recall that swept Schwarzenegger into office.

On Friday, Poizner's campaign released a Web video with a cast of Republicans for whom Whitman never voted, among them Ronald Reagan and former Gov. Pete Wilson, her campaign chairman. "She skipped every vote for 28 years," an announcer says.

The Bee report also raised the question of how forthcoming Whitman had been with party faithful at the last state Republican convention in February, when she expressed regret for not voting "on several occasions," rather than most of her adult life.

At a tense news conference after Whitman's well-received speech to delegates at a hotel ballroom luncheon, the self-described billionaire offered repeated mea culpas but sidestepped questions on why she had declined to vote for nearly three decades.

"What I have said is that I did not vote as often as I should, I did not register as often as I should, and I'm sorry about that, and there's no excuse for it," she said.

Pressed again to explain why she bypassed national, state and local elections, she declined. "I think it doesn't look good, right? I made a mistake." She added, "Leaders stand up and take accountability for their mistakes, and that's exactly what I'm doing."

Later, however, Whitman's campaign refused to say whether the candidate was confirming or denying the report that she never registered to vote before 2002. "She's not litigating her voting record," Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said.

Campbell stayed above the fray on Whitman's voting history. "I choose not to address it," he said Saturday.

But in a dinner speech on Friday, Campbell mocked Poizner and Whitman, though not by name, for promising to reduce taxes and spending without, for the most part, specifying cuts. The former state finance director, who teaches law and economics at Chapman University, urged Republicans to be wary of his rivals vowing to slash "waste, fraud and abuse," as Whitman did on Saturday.

"We should never accept that phrase as a substitute for actual numbers," said Campbell, who has risked the wrath of conservatives by proposing tax hikes as part of his highly detailed plan to overcome the state's chronic budget shortfalls.

Poizner renewed his promise to cut state taxes by at least 10% across the board but declined to specify any spending cuts. "It's not going to cost the budget anything," he said, suggesting the tax cuts would spur so much economic activity that state revenue would not drop.

He also declined to specify how much the tax cuts would be worth, saying, "The dynamic modeling is something that we're working on."

Whitman, too, touted her plans for tax cuts, along with proposals for higher teacher pay and new prison construction. She promised to block any early release of inmates that might be required to comply with a court order to relieve overcrowding.

Whitman also said she would exempt firefighters, Highway Patrol officers and prison guards from her plan to cut 40,000 workers from the state payroll.

Both she and Poizner took swipes at Schwarzenegger, who has enraged many fellow Republicans by raising taxes and aligning himself with Democrats on some such issues.

"I love California's environment, but I reject environmental policies that do little for the environment and wreak havoc on California's economic future," said Whitman, who called for suspending the greenhouse-gas law. "Liberal environmentalists may not like jobs or people, but California needs both."

Poizner also avoided mentioning the governor by name but nonetheless accused him and other Republicans of hurting the party by straying from such traditional GOP positions.

"The reason why it's in trouble," he said of the party, "is because we sometimes elect leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., who abandon those core principles."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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