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Whitman scoots right on a double-edged sword

A new L.A. Times/USC poll shows that she has regained a sizable lead against her primary opponent, but it comes at the cost of her narrow lead in the general election.

May 30, 2010|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

Somewhere in the course of this nasty primary season, Meg Whitman, the Silicon Valley business giant making her run for governor on the argument that she can bring jobs back to California, has morphed into a very different Meg Whitman. Consider her wingmen as she tries to land her behemoth of a campaign plane on the primary election runway:

Pete Wilson. Dick Cheney. Newt Gingrich.

All were in ads for or endorsing Whitman last week. Together they represent the antithesis of moderation in a state where Republican candidates in recent years have won only by being moderate.

Evidence of the stakes in Whitman's image whiplash came in a new Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll. The poll showed that Whitman had regained her mammoth lead, lost earlier this spring, against her main Republican opponent, Steve Poizner.

But that was at the cost of her general election lead against Democrat Jerry Brown, and the loss of support from several key voter groups whose backing is essential for a Republican candidate whose party comrades are heavily outnumbered in California.

In the general election race, Whitman was down 6 points from a March poll and Brown was up 3, turning her 3-point edge to a 6-point Brown margin in May. The question, unanswerable at the moment, is whether Whitman's moves in the last two months have permanently altered her chances in November, were she to win the primary.

The state's political gurus came to an almost universal view months ago — before, yes, any voters were consulted. They held that Poizner, with his sharp move to the right on a host of issues, had little chance of winning in November. Whitman, the storyline went, could cobble together a coalition of voters: conservatives and moderates, Republicans and nonpartisans and a smattering of Democrats, more women and more Latinos than side with the typical Republican candidate. A similar fusion propelled Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson — before Wilson's moves against illegal immigrants shifted his image, particularly among Latinos, from moderate to something much harder-edged.

Then Whitman was pressed by Poizner to project toughness on the same issue, and also to project conservatism on abortion rights and other things.

Last week's poll showed that, for now anyway, Whitman's image is more like the typical Republican candidate than anything else. Women, for example, were one of her target groups. Now she is losing them to Brown in a general election matchup. She had also lost ground among most of the other groups as well.

It is common for candidates of both parties to move to the center for the general election so they can appeal to the broadest swath of voters. But no one before has tried that sort of shift after having spent so much money defining herself the other way.

"If she is the nominee, she is going to have to figure out a way to scramble back to the political center very quickly," said Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP strategist.

Brown's great good luck — in politics, the adage that it is better to be lucky than good is always true — is that he has had no need for scampering. Having a top-notch opponent in the primary can be useful for honing skills for the general election. But it can also, as Whitman has found, drive the campaign in directions you'd rather not go.

In Brown's case, he has been the navigator for the entirety of the spring campaign. His Democratic opponents, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, bowed out early, victims of bad timing and worse fundraising. The state's most popular Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, decided against running. That left Brown by himself, plopped down in the center, not having to execute any excruciating moves to get there.

"The single most important things that happened in California politics this year were the decisions of Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa not to run for governor," said Schnur. "Had Brown faced a credible primary opponent, he'd be facing a scramble back to the political center the same way Whitman would be. Because he's had the field to himself, he's been able to set up shop on the 50-yard line."

There, Brown has been emphasizing stances broadly popular in the general election, if not necessarily in a Democratic primary: among them, opposing any tax hikes without explicit permission from voters and opposing a measure to legalize marijuana. Both issues help knock down lingering images of Brown as a conventional liberal.

Whitman's balancing act was on display last week at an event in Irvine that showed that even candidates with all the money in the world can't always control the campaign.

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