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Poizner takes a calculated risk in delaying fight with Whitman

Some say the GOP governor candidate's strategy has given his rival too big an edge.

March 10, 2010|By Michael Rothfeld
  • Steve Poizner, left, at a January forum with The Times' Robert Greene, has "definitely dug quite a hole for himself," by delaying, says political observer Dan Schnur.
Steve Poizner, left, at a January forum with The Times' Robert Greene,… (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — Steve Poizner was in his first year as state insurance commissioner in 2007 when his name began to surface as a likely candidate to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

There was no other Republican on the horizon with Poizner's potentially winning attributes: a personal fortune and a reputation (in the past, at least) as a political moderate. Soon he began scooping up endorsements from local officials across the state. And then Meg Whitman came along.

Poizner is now about 30 points behind the former EBay chief in mainstream polls with three months to go until the primary election that will determine which GOP candidate faces off against Democratic Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in the fall. Poizner has mostly been sitting on a $19-million campaign war chest while Whitman has outspent him dramatically in an effort to put him away.

As state Republicans prepare for a party convention in Santa Clara this weekend, Poizner has been attempting to fight off the story line that his campaign is all but over. He has vowed not to drop out and to stick to his plan to use his money for an advertising blitz closer to the election on the theory that voters will start paying attention then.

But Poizner, 53, will have to overcome a campaign narrative that has already developed. Beyond the poll numbers, a string of Republicans who had lined up behind him, including many officeholders, have recently defected to support Whitman, also 53.

Poizner's advisors contend that Whitman's popularity is ephemeral, a reflection of her willingness to spend far beyond what any other candidate has in a governor's race to get her message on the air far earlier than anyone else. They say that will change when they cast Poizner as the conservative in the race and Whitman as a liberal.

"In essence, she's been running unopposed," said Stuart Stevens, Poizner's chief strategist. "Very few people know who Steve Poizner is. The test of this campaign is going to be what happens when people get to know Steve Poizner."

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican political operative, said that although it is true that many voters don't tune in until late, by letting Whitman get so far ahead, "he's definitely dug quite a hole for himself."

"If you're a legislator or a donor or a grass-roots activist and you see your candidate slipping further and further behind in the polls," Schnur said, "you may know that there is a strategy . . . but it still makes you nervous."

Whitman spent $19 million on her campaign last year, while Poizner spent $3.7 million.

Last month, Poizner campaign Chairman Jim Brulte appealed to supporters to hang tough, saying in a letter that the primary will help the winner prepare to battle Brown and that Whitman is afraid of a head-to-head fight.

"I understand that Meg's team wants to avoid the primary and go right to the playoffs," Brulte wrote, "but I believe that the people of our state deserve the opportunity to have the healthy competition that is so necessary to a vibrant democracy."

Whitman has been trying doggedly to leave Poizner in the rearview mirror. In February, Poizner revealed that one of his consultants received an e-mail from Whitman strategist Mike Murphy threatening a $40-million negative campaign against the insurance commissioner unless he quit the race.

In an interview, Whitman said she is ready to engage.

"It looks to me like Steve is in this for a while," she said. "My point of view is the Republicans have a big challenge in Jerry Brown. . . . So my view is that it would be the right thing to pool all of our resources. . . . But you know what, I'm happy to compete."

Whitman began the threatened negative campaign in an effort to define Poizner before he defined himself. Late last month, she launched a series of television ads and a website, www.canttruststeve.com, portraying Poizner as inconsistent on taxes, abortion and other issues. Murphy called the move a preemptive strike against an anticipated assault in the campaign's final weeks.

"It would be foolish for us to walk into this kind of late-attack strategy," Murphy said. "If Steve is committed to this kind of kamikaze thinking and he has the money to do it, we have the resources to engage in a debate about Steve's record, which is very problematical."

Poizner has veered to the right in his campaign in hopes of locking up Republican loyalists. Last week, he launched his first television ad, hammering "liberal Meg Whitman" and touting himself as a conservative on the issues of taxes and illegal immigration. On Wednesday, he unveiled a website of his own, www.realmegwhitman.com.

Poizner is hoping to turn things around once face-to-face confrontations with Whitman begin. Starting Friday night at the convention, they will pitch themselves directly to their party's fiercest devotees. And two debates between them are scheduled, the first one on Monday and the second in May.

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