So it has come to this: Two Republicans who said they would bring cool business acumen to the governorship are, in the last weeks of their primary race, locked in a screaming match over immigration and welfare and the hot insult "liberal."
This was not what either Steve Poizner or Meg Whitman said their campaigns were to be about.
Poizner's ads last week took two directions, hitting Whitman on character and ideology. In one, he accused her of never having voted in 28 years, a claim Whitman has disputed. In the other, he said she lacked the "courage and values to stand up to illegal immigration." Whitman disputes that too.
Poizner also disputes the whole range of Whitman ads lobbed last week. They included separate radio ads contending that Poizner was "truly frightening" on taxes and that Whitman was tougher on illegal immigration. In a television ad, Whitman threw the term "liberal" back at Poizner, lancing him as an abortion-abetting, tax-hiking, free-spending Al Gore donor. She did not accuse him of favoring brie and Chardonnay, but perhaps time ran out.
For Whitman, the former head of EBay making her first bid for office, the turnabout from high-flying frontrunner to muddy brawler has been particularly brutal.
For months, she campaigned by saying she would focus as governor only on jobs, spending and education, and on running government "a little bit more like a business." So necessary was that laser focus, she said, that she vowed to veto any bill the Legislature produced that dealt with anything else.
By last week, however, her once massive lead had diminished substantially and Whitman was firmly on familiar turf for a Republican primary — issues that play on cultural or racial notes. In another ad, airing on the radio, she misrepresented facts to blast welfare recipients.
Welfare recipients are always a handy target for politicians, even if 80% of them are children. But the Whitman ad carried an extra jolt.
Her campaign has long been concerned that Whitman's immense wealth and her lavish donations to her campaign — $64 million and counting — could boomerang. And yet there she was on the radio, a billionaire bashing the poor. She hotly criticizing a welfare system that awards, for the average recipient in the average welfare family, about $231 per month. In other words, less each month than what Whitman's campaign spent each minute this spring.
Asked whether the campaign was concerned about the imagery, spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said that "Meg's commitment is to getting government spending under control and creating jobs. We believe voters will see that she is the only candidate who can help to put more people back to work and reduce the amount of money that they have to pay to government in state taxes."
Publicly, both of the Republican campaigns professed that the current bickering would have no effect on the eventual nominee, but others in the GOP worried that the clash could be problematic. Chortles of glee from Democrats suggested they were thrilled that Whitman and Poizner were doing to each other what the putative Democratic nominee, former Gov. Jerry Brown, doesn't have the money to do himself.
The campaign did not always look like this.
Both Poizner and Whitman have long tenures in the business world, she at EBay and elsewhere and he as a Silicon Valley engineer and entrepreneur before he became insurance commissioner. In the campaign's initial months, they were not quite eye-shade accountants but at least tried to give off the image of people who would, calculator in hand, make California come to grips with its budget mess. (Each presented more specifics than Brown, who has remained mum on almost everything).
Poizner set out a plan for across-the-board tax cuts that he said would stir economic growth. Whitman declined that option but advocated targeted tax cuts that she said would spur jobs and businesses. Both promised to cut back on regulations and streamline bureaucracy.
The candidates still talk about those things to voters, their aides say. But they barely mention them in their ads, the chief means of communicating with the vast California electorate. In turning toward hot-button issues, Poizner spokesman Jarrod Agen said, the campaign is simply following the lead of voters.
"We've certainly tapped into the pulse of where Republican voters are and what is important to them right now," he said, citing illegal immigration as an example.
For candidates whose personas suggested the ability to look seriously at the finances of a state at the economic abyss, the conversation now is all about getting voters riled up.
Welfare, with its tinges of race and class, has often been used to move voters who might otherwise be indifferent. Its effect on the budget, however, is not substantial.