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Tactics split state's top two GOP contenders

Fiorina, trying to unseat Boxer, stays true to her conservative primary stance. Whitman, running against Brown, moves to the center in search of moderate voters.

October 11, 2010|By Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

On the campaign trail at a recent "tea party" event, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina dropped a reference to her husband's guns, chided her Democratic opponent for vilifying backers of Arizona's tough immigration law and renewed her commitment to offshore drilling and to suspending the state's global warming law.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has argued that her position on illegal immigration isn't very different from that of her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown. She recently pushed back against a hostile questioner by noting her support for abortion rights. And she announced that she would oppose a ballot measure that would roll back the state's climate change law.

Those diverging messages have been secondary to the topic both women talk about most about: jobs. But they also illustrate the markedly different strategies they have chosen this year in a state where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans.

Whitman is following the well-tested route of Republican candidates who have succeeded statewide in California. After stressing her conservatism in the primary, she softened her rhetoric and began emphasizing her moderate stances to appeal to independents.

Fiorina has chosen a riskier strategy. She has stood firm on the conservative positions she staked out in the primary, betting that Republicans' enthusiasm this year will help overcome Democrats' registration advantage and that swing voters will overlook the areas where her views are out of sync with theirs.

"If Meg wins, that's not a big shock. She's kind of like Arnold [Schwarzenegger], and we've had mainly Republican governors" in recent decades, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. "If Carly wins, that's a big deal.... We're going to have to stop and really think when we say California is a light blue state."

There are still three weeks until the election, but Whitman so far has outpaced Fiorina in the polls, in no small part because her well-financed campaign has allowed her to reach a greater number of voters. In a recent Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll, Whitman trailed Brown by 5 points while Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had opened an 8-point lead over Fiorina (after a week in which Boxer launched a searing ad attacking Fiorina's corporate record).

The poll also showed that Whitman is better known to California voters than Fiorina and had made inroads with moderates as well as Democrats.

Those findings reflected both the women's beliefs and the way they have run their races against two opponents who are viewed as liberal.

Whitman has been able to spend money on mailers and television ads that zero in on the concerns of independent and Democrats voters, a luxury Fiorina has not had. Even before the primary, the former EBay chief executive staked out moderate positions on abortion and aspects of the immigration debate that put her at odds with conservative voters.

Conservatives were initially skeptical of Fiorina, questioning her commitment to core GOP values, especially on social issues. But some of those concerns were put to rest after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive as one of her "Mama Grizzlies." (Though Fiorina welcomed Palin's support, she is skipping a chance to appear with her at a GOP rally Saturday in Anaheim. Both she and Whitman said they already had other events scheduled.)

Over the course of the election, both candidates have sought to reach independent and moderate voters by tapping into their frustration with spending and dysfunction in Washington and Sacramento. But stark contrasts have emerged in their approaches to three other areas: the environment, immigration and abortion.

After the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast, Fiorina did not back off her support for expanded drilling off California's coast. After expressing some openness to drilling, Whitman retreated, stating she would agree to more drilling only if there were a "next to zero" risk to the environment.

Both Fiorina and Whitman railed against the state's climate change law as a "job-killer," and Whitman ultimately decided that her plan for a one-year delay was preferable to the ballot measure that would suspend the rules until unemployment drops to 5.5% for a year. Fiorina backed the measure, arguing that the risk of lost jobs was too great.

Although Whitman promised in the primary to be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration, she later erected Spanish-language billboards that highlighted her opposition to the Arizona law and Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that would have denied public schooling and some other benefits to illegal immigrants.

Fiorina backed the Arizona law, has yet to take a position on Proposition 187 and has framed illegal immigration as a national security issue, predicting recently that "the drug war that is going on in Mexico will come to this country. It is already in some ways here."

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