Republicans have yet to formally decide their gubernatorial nominee, but California Democrats are already launching their campaign against the candidate they expect to win: frontrunner Meg Whitman.
The California Nurses Assn. will begin advertising Wednesday on Spanish-language radio stations about the billionaire's position on immigration, a coalition of unions plans to launch anti-Whitman TV ads next week and presumptive Democratic nominee Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown unveiled his first online spot on Tuesday.
Although none of the efforts is well-funded so far, they are part of a strategy to throw Whitman off balance. The Democrats' goal is to force the former EBay chief to remain on the defensive in the GOP primary, despite her expansive lead over rival Steve Poizner. Democrats also hope to shape moderates' perceptions of Whitman before she has time to recover from a bruising primary that forced her to court conservatives.
"Any ads against Whitman right now are two-fers for the Democrats," said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State.
Whitman's campaign said the timing of the attacks and the groups behind them show that she is a threat to special interests that control Sacramento.
"It's a coalition of the status quo who are determined to protect the entrenched government union groups and the Sacramento politicians that serve their interests," said spokesman Tucker Bounds.
As the Republicans have battled in their primary, Brown has avoided the campaign stage. On Tuesday, he unveiled his first ad, an online video called "Enough Already!" There are no plans to televise the 30-second video.
Against a cacophony of clips of Poizner and Whitman hurling attacks at each other, the ad notes that the pair have broadcast "100,000 negative ads."
"It's no secret that Sacramento isn't working today," Brown says. "Partisanship is poisonous. We need to work together as Californians first."
The California Working Families for Jerry Brown for Governor 2010 committee, a coalition of unions, plans to start advertising the day after the primary and on Wednesday will announce a partnership with the Democratic Governors Assn.
"The summer months are going to be critical to making sure that their candidate doesn't have the airwaves to themselves," said committee strategist Roger Salazar.
The California Nurses Assn. ad on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles will not run often but its backers believe the message is lethal.
The ad replays Whitman's own English-language radio ad about illegal immigration, where she speaks out against amnesty, sanctuary cities and taxpayer-funded benefits.
"Illegal immigrants are just that: illegal," Whitman says in the ad, which also features praise from former Gov. Pete Wilson, Whitman's campaign manager. Wilson is viewed as a pariah among some Latinos because he championed a 1994 ballot measure that would have ended taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants.
Republican strategists said Whitman needs to address the issue immediately to avoid alienating Latinos. GOP candidates must win a generous proportion of them to succeed statewide.
"If she can't resolve it, I question whether she's electable, regardless of how much money she spends," said Allan Hoffenblum, who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book.
The organization behind the ad has been a thorn in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's side since he took office and has a flair for the dramatic.
On Tuesday, they tried to disrupt Whitman's appearance in Garden Grove with what it dubbed a "satire campaign" in which they refer to the candidate as "Queen Meg." A plane circled overhead, trailing a banner that read "Meg for Queen 2010." At the event, however, the crowd appeared to think it was a campaign ad and cheered.
As protesters chanted "Rich enough to rule" just outside her open-air appearance, Whitman appeared to rush through her standard speech.
She made no reference to Poizner — other than to express her confidence in a double-digit lead. But while she reminded voters more than once about the Tuesday primary, she also seemed to be casting herself against Brown. She uttered familiar gibes against career politicians, of which Brown may be the state's supreme example.
Asked after her speech about the protest, Whitman said that nothing about her campaign would change.
"I'm just going to do the same thing over and over again, which is talk about what I think matters most to Californians, which is jobs and spending and fixing our K through 12 education system," she said.