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Meg Whitman's Uphill Battle

Captain Comeback.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

It will all come down to math. Former eBay chief executive officer Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for California governor, cannot beat Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, in a state where only 31 percent of voters are registered as Republicans.

Unless.

Brown is clearly the favorite going into the November General Election. But Democratic, Republican and independent analysts agree that this doesn't give Brown any guarantee in a state where voters chew up Democratic gubernatorial candidates who fail to heed voters' concerns, as happened in the disastrous race mounted four years ago by too-liberal Phil Angelides against centrist Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To win, as California Target Book co-publisher Tony Quinn notes, Whitman must get a whopping 60 to 65 percent of the independent voters — those "decline to states" who dislike both parties. She must also attract, despite her strong opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, 30 to 35 percent of Latinos — by tapping the fiscally conservative small-business owners and moderates who have no love lost for the Democrats.

Black voters in California have made themselves irrelevant by voting for decades as a monolithic bloc behind the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, no matter how bad the candidate. As a result, black voters, more than any other group, are taken for granted and will not play a role this year.

That doesn't mean the reliable voters won't be wooed, or that ethnic pandering and ethnic controversies won't play major roles.

The Republican base for Whitman pencils out at 35 percent to 38 percent of the electorate (registration in the party is 31 percent, but they are more avid voters than Democrats, so their numbers are bigger at the polls). Whether Republicans in November make up just 35 percent, or give Whitman a slightly bigger but very crucial 38 percent, depends on how fired up Whitman can get them, how far they try to push her beyond her conservative-moderate views on immigration (she opposes the Arizona law but also opposes amnesty), and how much the far right fears Brown.

Democrats make up a far larger base, with 44.5 percent of registered voters, and within that demographic is a big, highly liberal Democratic core. That immovable bloc, which voted for the hapless Angelides in 2006 and even for the unprepared Cruz Bustamante before that, makes up 40 percent of California's electorate. Brown can rely on those voters completely.

That leaves about 20 to 25 percent of voters up for grabs, including the most open-minded citizens willing to listen to all sides, as well as the most disgruntled and disgusted residents sick of politics, who hate the two key parties.

As of now, the two candidates are locked in a race for the middle to woo this disparate bunch, and some hints of that were clear at the parties held by the victors on Election Night in Los Angeles.

Brown's camp selected Club Nokia near Staples Center for his venue, an apparent nod to younger voters who don't remember former Governor Jerry Brown, but the tiny crowd that showed up, roughly 250 subdued supporters and spinmeisters, was no match for a Lakers championship run in Boston, which many political journalists watched on TV instead of election returns.

Then there was an awkward moment when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent his handlers to repeatedly urge reporters to tape interviews with the mayor. Few were interested, with one finally asking, "Isn't he just going to say it again in 20 minutes onstage?"

Despite those hiccups, an ebullient Brown finally arrived to a modest cheer, cracking jokes and looking relaxed. He introduced his wife, Anne Gust, saying that trying to keep up with her "has gotten me in the mood" to run hard for governor.

While his supporters in the audience called Whitman "the auction-house woman," Brown never said her name. But he did make clear that he plans to paint her as monied and divisive, saying "we're not scapegoating anybody" not even "the guy who cleans bedpans."

Ten miles away, Whitman's victory party at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City officially began at 8:45 p.m., when the Associated Press named her the Republican nominee by virtue of her win over California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

In her victory speech, Whitman hammered at Brown, calling him the candidate of "glitz, glamour and glibness," while describing herself as the candidate of "guts."

Only once did she reach beyond her conservative base.

"I ask all Californians — Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Asians, African-Americans and Latinos — to all join my campaign," she said.

Mostly, she stuck to red meat. After saying that Brown owes favors to every special-interest power broker in the state, Whitman added a line that was not in her prepared remarks: "The really good news is I don't owe anyone anything," she said, to thunderous applause.

 

Now, it gets down to the war to hang onto their hard-core voters while grabbing the coveted swing voters, who will choose the next governor.

And close watchers of that swing crowd say Californians are in for some real surprises, and a riveting battle.

Pat Caddell, a Democratic analyst for FOX News, sums up a consensus that Whitman and Brown will not win based on traditional election-year issues, such as illegal immigration, crappy schools or even California's abysmal unemployment rate but will grab the governor's mansion because of this uberconcern: Which one is seen by swing voters as least likely to do damage to them, their loved ones and their community?

"If there was ever a moment for someone to speak up about how to turn California around, this primary was it," Caddell says. "Instead, you have 36 million people with the most dysfunctional state government in the United States, and the Democrats had Brown running unopposed and unquestioned for this critical nomination? And the Republicans, they go and put up two multimillionaires?

"Now that's what is wrong with the two parties, right there," Caddell says. "He is a flawed candidate; she is a flawed candidate. The outcome will be determined by something other than their personalities."

Voter backlash could quickly mount against either candidate — Brown because he is the ultimate lifelong political insider in a "throw-the-bums-out" year, or Whitman because she dallied with Goldman Sachs in order to get richer and has spent $80 million, mostly of her own money, to become a household name from Redding to San Diego.

The mystery — and the one that Brown and Whitman will now spend tens of millions of dollars to unravel — is what do the undecided voters fear and want?

Urbanist and author Joel Kotkin, who has written extensively about the surge in middle-class flight from California to other states since 2000, says swing voters include "a lot of people from specific sectors, who have seen their jobs just vanish. We are talking about skilled blue collar and white collar moving out of California. Symantec is expanding, but all of its growth is unfolding outside of California, while its executives in Silicon Valley do quite well. Many working people in the private sector, who voted for Obama, now are worried that taxes and regulations are hitting them first and worst."

Adds Democratic consultant Rich Lichtenstein, owner of Marathon Communications, "You got grumpy people who think it's a cesspool in Sacramento, wondering who is less likely to be part of the problem. This is an issue for Jerry because he is the consummate insider. Meg has to hold onto the undecided females who might want to vote for a woman, but I am not sure Meg Whitman is a woman — she may have testicles, and that may be a good thing too in this campaign."

Lichtenstein is particularly concerned after having met with Brown at Gray Davis' home not long ago, and finding him to be "tired, old-seeming and just saying that he has a lot of good ideas. He has to really articulate how he is going to make his ideas work."

Yet Jonathan Wilcox, a Republican political analyst who played a key role in the recall of Governor Davis, is almost effusive in his view that Brown will develop his ideas, and has the potential to come off as a sort of superhero candidate who catches the undecided voters' imaginations.

"My warning to Republicans is that Jerry Brown is going to run a very thoughtful campaign, and Meg and her millions are going to have their hands full. Jerry Brown is going to say some things people are not expecting.

"The anti-incumbent climate is right for somebody like Whitman, but this is not your father Jerry Brown's campaign," Wilcox says. "He is an interesting fellow and he is going to engage on the big ideas. Even with her enormous money, the other side will have a lot of money, too. This is one really, really, really interesting guy. Undecided voters are going to be paying attention."

One potential shocker Wilcox predicts: Brown will force his huge, rich, labor-union backers to join him in publicly questioning the massive pensions owed to state workers, who pay only a fraction into their retirement accounts but are then guaranteed the equivalent of $1 million for a low-skilled state clerk, and, moreover, can retire in their 50s, at the height of their productivity and ability.

"These gross public-employee pensions could wind up where the tribal gaming forces ended up during the recall of Gray Davis, when the tribes crippled the campaign of Cruz Bustamante," Wilcox says. "The tribes were the symptom of what was wrong: Davis' unhealthy obsession with special-interest money, people who did not pay their fair share. This year people will say that excessive 'taking' by anybody — by politicians, special interests, and now the public-employee pensioners — is a symptom of the core problem."

 

But as Franklin Gilliam, dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs, notes, Whitman will run "a real outsider strategy, saying she is about big innovations. Jerry will say, 'It's great to be able to do that when you can command it, but you cannot command anyone in Sacramento.' Arnold tried that, and failed to build relationships upon which he could rely. Look where it got him."

—Gene Maddaus contributed to this report 


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