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Candidates strategize in final weeks of gubernatorial race

Whitman targets specific groups with mailers, diner visits and phone calls, in hopes of attracting independent voters. Brown limits public appearances to prevent gaffes and works to maximize Democratic turnout.

October 20, 2010|By Seema Mehta and Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

As the gubernatorial candidates sprint to election day, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown are following two distinct paths that speak to their strengths and weaknesses as candidates and the segments of the electorate that are vital to each.

Republican Whitman is aggressively courting independent voters across the state. She aired four new anti-Brown ads in the last week. She is campaigning in media markets large and small every day and cluttering mailboxes around the state. A recent mailing — a glossy 24-page brochure — went to nearly 1 million independent voters. Whitman is targeting specific groups on the theory that even a motivated Republican base is not enough to guarantee her election.

Democratic nominee Brown is not nearly as visible but has concentrated his actions in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the party's twin power centers, trying to motivate core voters with visits from popular Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. With his party less enthused than the GOP, Brown is also pressing independent voters with his assertions that Whitman is seeking office to benefit herself and California's privileged class.

"He's shooting a shotgun, hoping the blast is sufficiently broad enough and large enough that it will attract the kind of support he needs," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. "She's shooting a rifle, picking her targets carefully."

The Whitman campaign is in overdrive, with the candidate riding around the state in a large green bus emblazoned with her "Jobs are on the way" slogan and her stylized poppy logo. In addition to extensive television ads and a sophisticated direct-mail operation, the campaign is aggressively contacting voters. More than 37,000 volunteers have made more than a million phone calls so far, the campaign said.

"We're going to stuff 20 days' worth of campaigning into 15 days," Mike Murphy, Whitman's chief strategist, said Monday after the candidate spoke at a Garden Grove manufacturing plant.

The kitchen-sink approach is indicative of Whitman's wealth — she has dumped more than $140 million of her own money into her campaign. But despite record-breaking spending, she remains locked with Brown in a tight race.

"We live in a Democratic state. There are 2.3 million more Democrats in California than there are Republicans," she said Monday. "The fact we are tied is actually a very good indicator and the next 15 days are going to matter — where do the undecideds go?"

A first-time political candidate, Whitman is far more comfortable as a public speaker than she was six months ago, but even her attempts at retail politics remain highly manufactured.

Last weekend, on a three-city swing through Northern California, three aides wearing Secret Service-style microphones guided Whitman through roadside diners as she shook hands, posed for pictures and chatted with voters. At the Black Bear Diner in Redding, Whitman was explaining her jobs plan to a customer when an aide leaned in and whispered: "Face the cameras." As Whitman turned, a throng of photographers snapped away.

Aides also polled customers as she worked the late-lunch crowd, steering Whitman around a couple of Brown supporters.

These visits are intended to show the former EBay chief and billionaire relating to everyday voters and their concerns. The results are mixed: At Philliedog in Bakersfield, she cut a chili dog into quarters with a plastic knife and took a bite, pinky finger extended.

Still, the appearances generate headlines and media attention, allowing Whitman to stick to a script yet appear spontaneous.

"The visuals of her being in the areas hardest hit by the recession help her persuade voters across California who care about the economy," said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "There are two things politicians are doing when they do retail campaigning: there is the audience in front of them but they are just as concerned about how they are perceived by the TV cameras."??

Brown is far less visible on the campaign trail. In the last week, his rival had more than twice as many public appearances around the state than he did. There is a strategic reason for Brown to shy away from the glare of cameras, political observers note: speaking less decreases the chance that the force-of-nature candidate will make another gaffe.

"It's not a time when you want to make mistakes," Gerston said.

Since he began campaigning around Labor Day, Brown has held two types of events — rallies aimed at energizing core Democratic voters and news conferences aimed at making headlines. The latter tend to be bare-bones — the candidate, a lectern, a couple of "Jerry Brown 2010" campaign signs.

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