Reporting from Salinas, Stockton and Sacramento — Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has reignited a controversy that roiled her campaign for weeks, saying the undocumented housekeeper she employed for nine years should be deported.
The comment, her toughest yet on the matter, came in an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, who asked Whitman on Wednesday whether the former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, should be deported.
"Well, the answer is: It breaks my heart, but she should be deported, because she forged documents and she lied about her immigration status," Whitman said.
She reiterated her argument that Diaz Santillan was used as a pawn in a political stunt but added: "The law is the law, and we live in the rule of law. It's important."
Whitman and her campaign aides had fought hard to turn the page on the scandal when it erupted in September. The candidate has said that both she and a hiring agency relied on documents that turned out to be false, and she fired Diaz Santillan when the housekeeper disclosed her immigration status last year.
On Thursday, Whitman tried to step back from her remarks, saying they didn't represent a change in position. "I think people are tired about talking about my housekeeper; they want to talk about how they're going to stay in their house," she told reporters in Stockton.
Until Wednesday, however, Whitman had declined to say whether Diaz Santillan should be deported, asserting that it was a matter for federal authorities. Moreover, she said repeatedly, she was reluctant to make an example of a woman she described as "a member of our extended family."
The deportation remark represents the kind of hard-line stance that Whitman sought to avoid for most of the campaign. It comes as she faces a barrage of polling that shows her Democratic rival, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, with a significant lead in the contest for governor.
One of Brown's biggest allies, the Service Employees International Union, released a statement saying Whitman was "making a desperate attempt to pander to the right in the last five days of the election."
A Field Poll released Thursday showed Brown leading Whitman by 10 points. Earlier in the week, the L.A. Times/USC poll showed a 13-point advantage. Several other polls have shown Brown with a high single-digit edge. Whitman's campaign released its own polls Thursday purporting to show the race tightening.
Brown held no public events Thursday as his campaign made last-minute decisions about advertising and prepared for a weekend barnstorming of the state. Whitman continued a statewide bus tour aimed at firing up her supporters.
"We're going to win this thing," she said at a sunny outdoor rally in Salinas on Thursday, surrounded by nearly 1,000 acres of vegetable fields. "Not withstanding what some of those public polls say, our polls show a dead-heat race and the momentum is moving my way."
She lashed out at Brown, saying that he has been "missing in action."
"I think he wants to be appointed to this office, not elected," Whitman told reporters in Stockton. "I am working for every single vote in California…. I bet he can't find Stockton on a map."
In the U.S. Senate race Thursday, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina returned to the stump after a brief hospital stay, saying that she felt "fantastic" as she rallied supporters outside Sacramento in her bid to oust Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.
"I feel great, and it's great to be back on the campaign trail," said Fiorina, who showed no sign of her illness as she spoke to reporters for nearly 20 minutes.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive was admitted to the hospital Tuesday morning and stayed overnight after developing an infection that her campaign said was related to reconstructive surgery earlier this summer. Fiorina was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2009 and treated with chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. She was given a clean bill of health last fall.
"Nothing about that diagnosis has changed," she told reporters Thursday. "I am completely cancer-free, and I feel fantastic."
Arriving at an event near the former McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento, she exchanged hugs or handshakes with nearly each admirer. About 80 cheering supporters chanted, "Back to win."
In her speech, Fiorina repeated her standard criticisms of Boxer's record on taxes, jobs and "28 years of failed leadership in Washington, D.C."
Fiorina received a warm welcome later Thursday from several hundred supporters at a gated Laguna Woods retirement community, where she mixed calls for smaller government and lower taxes to spur job creation with nostalgic recollections of her childhood in postwar California. She also talked of her business career, which began in a secretarial pool and led to the top job at Hewlett-Packard, from which she was fired.