Two weeks before their primary election showdown, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner took parallel tracks toward the Republican nomination for governor Tuesday, with Poizner hammering on the issue of illegal immigration and Whitman emphasizing her business background and the state's budget dysfunction.
Speaking to business leaders in Irvine, Whitman blamed Sacramento politicians — including by inference the GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger — for idling as the budget deficit grew and for insufficiently targeting what she said was billions of dollars in easily discerned waste and fraud in state spending.
"We have known this is coming for quite some time, and have you noticed what they've been doing in Sacramento for the last six months? Nothing. I mean, this is remarkable," said the former EBay chief executive. "We should have called a 911, working around the clock to solve the problems, because in six months — I will tell you, budget deficits do not get better with time. It's not like wine."
Of Sacramento, Whitman said, "This is the farthest thing you can imagine from smart, efficient, well-run government…. Everywhere you look, there is mismanagement and fraud."
Poizner, speaking to a GOP women's group on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, repeated his call to end taxpayer-funded benefits for those in the country illegally, punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and eliminate state funds to sanctuary cities such as San Francisco. He said California should adopt and even expand Arizona's recently enacted immigration law and curb a range of benefits available to illegal immigrants.
While Poizner supports the Arizona law, which directs police to check the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally, Whitman does not. Poizner has run weeks of television advertising against Whitman because of that position, and his emphasis has been one of the factors that has narrowed the race in recent weeks.
"They made it illegal to be illegal, that's just common sense," the state insurance commissioner told about 120 women at a luncheon, its location overlooking the lush green fairways of the Palos Verdes Country Club. "How can you be a conservative and be opposed to what they're doing in Arizona? It doesn't fit, it doesn't match."
Poizner continued his full-throated assault on Whitman on other subjects as well.
"I've got to point out a few things about Meg Whitman for you to analyze. She hasn't been a Republican ever in her entire life until recently. She didn't vote for 28 years straight," Poizner said, before adding that she campaigned for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004 and endorsed Al Gore in 2000. "If you have a track record like that, no wonder she's trying to change the subject. The reason my campaign is surging is I'm setting the record straight."
Whitman disputes his contentions, as Poizner does hers in what has become a tense and angry battle toward the June 8 primary. The winner is expected to face Democrat Jerry Brown, the only major member of his party on the ballot for governor.
Whitman's campaign has taken a turn of late toward the businesswoman-as-fiscal-savior motif of her early months on the campaign trail. A current television ad features former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney extolling her leadership qualities, rather than blasting Poizner for his various policy positions.
Much of her appearance at a small company at an Irvine commerce park dealt with her business background, which she said would enable her to shrink state government into a manageable state. Since the governorship is now held by a member of her party, however, that has required a bit of in-party feuding.
After she contended that waste and fraud were "everywhere," she was asked by a reporter about Schwarzenegger's past assertion that the amounts of waste are not as large as he charged when he was a candidate.
"I think he's wrong on that. I think there is this money to go after," she said.
Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, cited reforms the governor had insisted upon in recent budgets.
"We agree with Ms. Whitman that we absolutely need to make government run as efficiently as possible, which is why we have fought for and won major reforms to our welfare system," he said. "To tackle the inefficiencies she mentions would require details that she refuses to share."
Whitman ignored the heated issue of illegal immigration until late in her appearance. When audience members did not bring it up, she did.
"My Republican opponent says I am for amnesty; it is simply not true," she said. "This has been an 'Aha!' being in politics…. People can say things that simply aren't true. Who knew?"
In reality, however, Whitman's relentless series of television, radio and mail ads have smacked Poizner with the same sort of innuendo with which he has greeted her in his less well-funded campaign. (She has put in at least $68 million of her own money, more than double what Poizner has given his campaign.)
In his appearance, Poizner accused Whitman of repeatedly distorting his record on 1978's landmark Proposition 13 and other matters.
"Meg Whitman has spent $80 million so far in this campaign, maybe she'll hit $100 million," he said. "A big chunk of that money has been on smear campaigns."