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Whitman shows her chops

The Republican gubernatorial candidate in California isn't dodging the media anymore. She proves to be articulate and quick on her feet.

March 17, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Meg Whitman, shown at a debate against opponent Steve Poizner, appears to be super-confident and becoming more immersed in the arcane details of state government.
Meg Whitman, shown at a debate against opponent Steve Poizner, appears… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )

From Sacramento — Where has she been? This Meg Whitman who wowed reporters at last weekend's Republican state convention. The political novice who skillfully debated Monday as if she'd been doing it her entire life.

What was she doing all those months dodging California political writers? Not debating her Republican opponent? Avoiding specifics?

Obviously she was up to it. Turns out, she's quick on her feet, articulate, becoming more and more immersed in the arcane details of state government and appears to be super-confident.

Also, clearly, it didn't make much difference in her front-running race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, based on polls -- not as long as the billionaire had unlimited funds to spend on continuous broadcast commercials starting last Labor Day.

She denies the ducking, of course.

Despite contentions of the state's news media that they were essentially shunned until Whitman held two wide-ranging sessions with reporters at the GOP convention in Santa Clara, she says: "I've done more than 200 press interviews." Guess it depends on what one calls an interview.

The word filtering from the campaign was that the former EBay chief was listening to trusted technology nerds who weren't acquainted with -- in fact, disdained -- the traditional give-and-take between a candidate and the press in our democratic system of electing government CEOs.

"Anyway, we're going to do more," Whitman told me over coffee in a lengthy interview. "We're now in the short stretch of the campaign."

And she's barely glancing back at her lone remaining GOP opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. The Field Poll reported Wednesday that Whitman is cruising ahead of Poizner by a virtually unheard-of 49-point margin -- 63% to 14% -- among likely voters in the GOP primary June 8.

Moreover, in a hypothetical November runoff, she has edged ahead of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who's unopposed in the Democratic primary. She leads 46% to 43% (though the numbers are within the margin of error). But if Poizner were the Republican candidate, according to the poll, Brown would win by 17 points.

The survey was conducted prior to Monday night's little-seen Whitman-Poizner debate -- the race's first -- sponsored by the New Majority Foundation, a Republican donor group in Orange County. Whitman, 5 feet 11, towered over Poizner and at least finished in a draw against the more experienced pol.

Whitman disputes the thesis that she hasn't been specific. She has a point. She has laid out enough concepts for anyone to chew on who's interested -- her controversial notion of eliminating 40,000 state jobs, for example.

"Listen, let's put this in perspective," Whitman says. "I'm 100 times more specific than Jerry Brown."

Brown learned long ago it's much easier to promise than to produce.

If it's Brown vs. Whitman in November, that will be a fascinating matchup of 180-degree contrasts: the career pol and former governor who knows the ins and outs of governing but may be seen as an old retread vs. the business product with fresh ideas but absolutely no experience in governing.

We've already had one governor who needed training wheels and has plummeted in popularity after promising voters Utopia and not delivering.

I was interested in what Whitman had learned from observing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

She has "a lot of respect" for the Republican governor, Whitman was careful to say, lauding him for worker's compensation reform, backing an initiative to end political gerrymandering and pushing a water bond proposal through the Legislature.

But one thing she would do that he hasn't is buy a home and live full-time in Sacramento. When Schwarzenegger is in Sacramento, he hunkers in a hotel suite across the street from the Capitol. And in fairness, he still has children at home in Los Angeles. Whitman's kids are grown.

"In a turn-around -- and California is a turn-around -- you have to spend a lot of time being right here, present, working the problem," Whitman says. "If you're not a leader present every single day, it doesn't work as well.

"And I think it's important to build relationships with the Legislature -- Republicans, Democrats -- to know what their election issues are, what their family issues are, what they care about. We need to build a level of trust. . . . The only way you build that trust is buying a house, entertaining, being here and being a presence."

Another difference between her and Schwarzenegger, she says: "A governor needs to focus on a small number of things that are absolutely essential."

Schwarzenegger didn't pick his best shots. He scatter-gunned.

Whitman says she'd focus on just three goals: creating jobs, cutting government spending, fixing education. (More on those another day.)

And, she adds in a contrast to the current governor, "being willing to be unpopular is essential. Because California is a turn-around. And in a turn-around, half the people are going to be upset with you all the time."

But if a governor's unpopular, it's very difficult to lead and to get reelected, I note.

"And my answer," she says, "is that sometimes leaders have to make decisions that are unpopular. The truth is, we need to reform state government, and change is not easy. Change engenders a lot of negative feedback."

That's noble. But it also may be naive.

Can a billionaire businesswoman with a spotty personal voting history and no record of government accomplishment become the elected leader of the nation's most populous state? Sure, the polls show. She'll be tough to beat, common sense says.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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