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Five Reasons Meg Whitman Is Looking Like a Slight Favorite

Republican candidate for governor and former Ebay doyenne Meg Whitman came to the Weekly's hometown of Culver City Tuesday, and though she didn't stop by the office, she was at nearby Function Drinks, a high-end beverage maker, for a town hall style meeting. (Function Drinks sample product: Urban Detox, Goji Berry; $23.65 for a 12-pack on Amazon.)

We came away thinking Jerry Brown, her Democratic opponent, is in some trouble. After the jump, five reasons. from least to most important.

5. Staff. There was a revealing moment after the event, during a press gaggle. Whitman was asked about Bill Clinton's endorsement of her opponent Brown. Whitman said she wasn't surprised. Wait, what? Why would Clinton endorsing the Democrat even be news?

Last week the Whitman campaign put out an ad that has rightly been called one of the best of the entire election cycle anywhere in the country: Clinton, debating Brown during the 1992 race for the Democratic nomination for president, calls Brown a liar for saying he cut taxes as governor of California. The ad served two purposes: It had Clinton, who remains very popular with California Democrats and (no polling on this, but more than likely) Democratic-leaning independents, calling Brown a liar in classic Clintonian red-faced fury. There's no more credible attack dog for these voters than Clinton.

Just as important, though, it was also an appealing piece of bait. Whitman's people probably wanted to see if Brown would go after Clinton, and sure enough, he did, and in the most extreme, cartoonish way possible, making a clumsy Monica Lewinsky reference. That couldn't have endeared Brown to Democratic voters.

There was a slight problem, however. Clinton, who based his 1992 Brown tax attack on a CNN report, was actually wrong, the weekend papers reported. When he left office as governor, taxes per $100 in income were lower than when he took office, according to state fiscal officials.

Whitman was asked about the discrepancy and factual error in the Tuesday Culver City press gaggle. Her response: Yes, when he left office, taxes were below when he arrived, but taxes went up in six of his eight years as governor, and if you averaged all those years out, Californians paid higher taxes during his tenure. And he came into office with a surplus and left with a deficit. As Whitman was parrying questions from the press with these talking points, her spokeswoman Sarah Pompei looked at deputy campaign manager for communications Tucker Bounds and nodded; Bounds nodded back.

Pompei worked press for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Bounds was national spokesman for John McCain. (Working on losing campaigns can be educational, no doubt.) Once the story broke that the ad was wrong, they had the research ready, got Whitman to learn the material, and then she delivered it.

4. Candidate appeal. Though it's true that in the Whitman family shoving is apparently a family affair, Meg Whitman is probably the kind of candidate Republican operatives wish they had more of this cycle, instead of, say, Sharron Angle in Nevada with her "Second Amendment remedies" or the latest GOP eccentricity out in Delaware.

Whitman, by contrast, has run a large organization that most Americans -- especially those who buy and sell Beanie Babies and Star Wars action figures and other junk -- really love. (OK, not totally fair -- you can get "The Wire" box set for less than $100 bucks.) She's been speaking to the press and in front of groups large and small for years. She comes off as reasonable and fair-minded, but firm when she needs to. To win in Democratic California, she needs to close the gender gap and win over moderate Democrats in the suburbs, and she's a good candidate to do it.

3. Candidate performance. Whitman has sometimes struggled, especially during an interview with John and Ken, the outraged talkers of KFI, during which she was all contorted about illegal immigration and California's AB32, the climate change legislation that would be suspended by Proposition 23 if passed in November. She'd tried to have it both ways on the issues, and the boys from Jersey really let her have it. (Contra Number 1 above, her staff deserves some blame for letting this happen.)

Tuesday, however, she looked right at home, as if the Focus Drinks event was an Ebay corporate retreat. She began by asking who in the audience was out of work or knew someone out of work or needed more hours. Most of the hands shot up. She kept the focus on a few key issues: Tax cuts, curtailing onerous regulation, repairing California's broken infrastructure and getting more money into classrooms. She was ready with examples, like Northrop Grumman leaving L.A. County, and the company that needs 100 permits to do business in California.

Does it add up? Mmmm, likely not. Whitman and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are ideologically similar, and he's been unable to tackle the beast of California's fiscal or governing crises. But Whitman subtly distanced herself from the governor -- she'll move to Sacramento and know everyone's name, she noted -- making it seem like big change would be coming to Sacramento.

2. Money. She's already spent more than $100 million. There's not much Brown can do that Whitman can't bury with an avalanche of more money. Whitman knows how tacky it is to have spent this kind of money competing for such a crummy job in a time when people are suffering. So she defends using so much of her own money by saying that although no one can buy elections ("Voters are too smart for that" -- yeah, right) money can buy candidates, like Brown, she said, pointing to his labor union ties. The logic of this is preposterous, but nevermind. You need money to win elections. Usually, the more, the better.

1. Atmospherics. For all the talk of staff and tactics and strategy, this is what matters. The California economy is still horrible. This is a Republican year. It's another year for "change" candidates. Yes, there's a Republican governor, but Brown has been in public life so long, and Democrats dominant here for so long, that Whitman looks less tainted by the status quo.

The race is far from over, but Brown has his work cut out for him.