As Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman seeks to regain momentum before election day, she is lashing out at the media and rival Jerry Brown, while trying to soften her persona in advertisements and mailers.
Her campaign insists that she is following a charted course and that the race remains tight. But political observers say that a rapidly changing strategy is a tacit acknowledgement that Whitman's campaign juggernaut — fueled by $141 million of her own money — has stalled.
"It's like in sports: You don't change a winning strategy and you always change a losing strategy," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. "The fact they're changing strategies … usually signifies they know what the truth is, and the truth is not good."
On the campaign trail and in interviews, Whitman is increasingly interrupting her standard jobs-and-schools talking points to emphasize that she feels under attack.
"I have been called a liar, I've been called a whore and I've been called a Nazi by his campaign," she said Wednesday morning on Fox News Channel's America's Newsroom.
Days earlier, she flogged Brown and his labor allies for exaggerating her position on immigration to the Latino community, repeatedly saying that "It makes me mad."
Whitman is going out of her way to criticize as "bunk" a Sunday Los Angeles Times/USC poll that showed Brown leading by 13 points among likely voters.
Her criticism has not extended to other recent public polls, which have consistently shown Whitman trailing Brown by high single digits.
At campaign events Wednesday, she insisted that her internal polling shows the race to be tight.
"Our polls show this is a dead heat and you're going to start to see some polls come out that show that this is a dead heat," she said in Riverside. "And in a dead heat, we win because the people who want to take back Sacramento are going to come to the polls in huge numbers."
But the candidate is clearly responding to poll findings that suggest voters are skeptical of her character. In the Times poll, more than half of likely voters had a negative view of Whitman. By almost a 2-1 margin, voters said Brown was more truthful.
Recent mail pieces have featured softly focused pictures of the candidate as a young woman and of her two children when they were young, and quotes such as "At the end of the day, my family remains my greatest source of pride."
And in a 60-second ad, Whitman looks directly into the camera and declares, "I know many of you see this election as an unhappy choice between a longtime politician with no plan for the future and a billionaire with no government experience. Let me tell you my story. My husband and I came here as newlyweds. We raised our family here."
Such efforts to depict the former EBay chief as a mother and wife, and under attack, could be an effort to win sympathy, according to political observers. And they could also be meant to counter negative perceptions that stem from eight months of tough campaigning against her primary opponent, Steve Poizner, and against Brown.
"A lot of Californians have a negative view of Meg Whitman, and they're trying to erase that side of the equation," Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national GOP official, said of the campaign's strategy.
Campaign officials insist that they always planned to return to a biographical message in the closing days.
"We feel late in a campaign, it's important for a candidate to be able to connect personally with voters. In a state the size of California, unfortunately, for most voters that's going to have to be through television advertisements," said Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor to Whitman. "The closing argument coming right from the candidate almost always makes a lot of sense. She wanted to be able to look in the eyes of voters and make that appeal from her heart about what this whole endeavor is about for her."
Tony Quinn, a Republican demographer, said he doubted that either Whitman's or Brown's recent ads matter at this late date, when television commercial breaks swarm with wall-to-wall political offerings from a plethora of candidates and ballot measures.
"At this point, frankly, the ads are having very little effect," he said. "It seems very strange to me to be pushing these TV ads this late in the cycle. I think people are really tuning them out."
On Wednesday, the two campaigns continued a clash that began the day before during a joint appearance at a women's conference in Long Beach. When the candidates were asked to pledge to end their negative ads, Brown said he would if Whitman agreed. Whitman said no, drawing boos from the crowd.
Whitman stood by her decision Wednesday.