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THE WEEK

Money and Scott Brown are driving California candidates

Republican Meg Whitman adds $20 million to her campaign. Democrats, who lack that kind of largesse, are paying attention to voters' perceived anger.

January 24, 2010|By Cathleen Decker

As the rains fell last week, a flood of another sort struck California. Meg Whitman, the former EBay chief, announced that she had dropped $20 million into her race for governor, atop the $19 million she had previously contributed.

Her total already has broken the California record for money fished from a candidate's wallet to finance political ambitions -- and there are four months in which to give more before the Republican primary.

This is where we are in California: With more than 12% of the population out of work, with economic fears so rampant that anti-depressants should be added to the state water supply, the honorary vehicle for this year's political campaigns might well be the luxury SUV.

Whitman's $39 million has thus far outdistanced her GOP challenger in the governor's race, Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner who has put a mere $19 million of his money into his campaign. In the race for U.S. Senate, former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina has dumped $2.5 million so far into an effort which, like Whitman's, represents her maiden voyage in politics.

Ironically, last week found many of the same candidates trying hard to channel Scott Brown, the Republican state senator from Massachusetts who performed a political miracle by winning a U.S. Senate seat in that traditionally Democratic state.

The notable difference: Brown's vehicle of choice, driven all over Massachusetts in pursuit of voters, was an old truck.

Image is not everything in politics, but there are times when it comes close. Voters pay attention to policies and parties, but much of their decision-making rests not in the head or the heart, but the gut. A winning candidate is a winning suitor, reliant less on algorithms than on alchemy.

Brown's race, for example, has been seized upon as a referendum on President Obama. For some it may have been that, but there also was more, a clear yearning by voters to scream their opposition to Washington-as-usual. Brown's image -- that of an upbeat, home-grown everyman with that high-mileage pickup -- cinched the necessary emotional connection.

But California has five times the number of voters as Massachusetts, and no candidate here can mount a compelling campaign based primarily on meeting and greeting voters in small groups. The courtship is done over the airwaves, and that requires money, which leads to the millionaire candidate.

This year's versions have somewhat different approaches. Whitman, for example, has been airing radio ads for months. She has cast herself as a candidate with a "spine of steel," ready to wrest control of the out-of-control state budget by handling the state as if it were a business. Last week's focus: slicing welfare payments. Her effort is sometimes reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, oozing toughness at the expense of emotion. (Fiorina, by contrast, talks about her recent cancer battle and emphasizes her up-from-the-secretarial-pool background.)

Poizner has tried to thread the narrow space between experience and outsider credentials, but so far it's not working. A Field Poll released last week had Whitman leading Poizner 45% to 17%. The poll also found that she was trailing unofficial Democratic candidate Jerry Brown by less than she had last fall, suggesting that her money has paid dividends so far.

The danger for wealthy candidates, particularly first-timers, is that if not expertly run, their campaigns can be seen as exercises in vanity. Typically they lose because they make rookie mistakes despite the legions of political consultants they hire.

Voters "have not really punished candidates for spending their own money," said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a longtime California political hand. "They have punished candidates for not knowing what they are doing."

There may be complications this year. Whitman in particular has spent enormous sums on a campaign whose main premise is the need for spending cuts. Her cuts would come from government, of course, but already Poizner has suggested that Whitman's largesse shows she is all talk. Brown can be expected to take up the theme if she wins the GOP nomination.

Another question is whether there will be a backlash against heavy spending when voters are hurting financially and are -- at least now -- watching scenes of wretched need on their television screens. One Republican sympathetic to Whitman suggested that there may be some point where "people all of a sudden say, 'Gee, that money could be better used to save people in Haiti.' "

Without the luxury of personal dollars, Democrats this past week also appeared to be ratcheting up efforts to embrace the concerns of an angry populace.

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