The Balboa Bay Club is the sort of place where the haves mingle with the have-mores. You can moor your yacht and sample the sand dabs with a view of the Newport Beach harbor.

It's also where Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, seems most comfortable meeting with Latinos these days. Last Friday, Whitman addressed a black-tie gathering there of the Hispanic 100, a pro-business political committee. The membership embodies a certain type of immigrant dream: Cross the border. Get rich. Become a Republican.

If Whitman wanted to broach the topic of her undocumented maid, this would be a sympathetic audience. But even after being serenaded by mariachis and knocking back a shot of tequila — or at least appearing to — she was in no mood to discuss Nicandra “Nicky” Diaz Santillan. Instead, she said what she always says in such settings: “I cannot win this election without the Latino vote.”

Winning those votes got a bit tougher when Diaz Santillan sat down alongside Gloria Allred to tell the world that Whitman had thrown her away “like garbage.”

Until then, in the polls Whitman was tied with Jerry Brown and doing much better than the typical Republican among Latinos and women — two groups that will be essential to victory, and also two groups that also likely would be offended by the housekeeper scandal. Now she's five points behind, according to Rasmussen Reports.

Whitman is trying to turn the page. Her campaign jumped on a recording of a Brown aide referring to her as a “whore,” first calling the remark “unforgivable” and then demanding that Brown personally apologize anyway. But two weeks after that first Allred press conference, Whitman has yet to banish Diaz Santillan's shadow from the campaign trail. It showed up in Tuesday's debate, when Tom Brokaw asked her how businesses can screen out illegal immigrants if she couldn't tell that one was working in her own house. It shows up on the campaign trail, when she cites the Latino unemployment rate and says it “breaks my heart, as it breaks yours.”

If you've seen Whitman speak, you know that a lot of things break her heart. The state of the K-12 education system. The movie Waiting for Superman. It's kind of a throwaway line. But now you're wondering about the moment when Diaz Santillan asked her employer for help establishing legal residency. Whitman has said she didn't know Diaz Santillan was undocumented, and that when she and her husband decided to fire her, “It broke our hearts.”

Before the housekeeper story broke, Whitman had an immigration problem, one that Diaz Santillan's charges underscored and amplified. To win in California, she has to cobble together a center-right coalition that holds flatly contradictory views on immigration. For the conservative base, she has to be “tough as nails,” but she also has to reach out to persuadable Latinos, many of whom have undocumented workers in their own families.

“It's an issue that doesn't work for her either way,” says Gary Segura, a Stanford professor and pollster at Latino Decisions, a survey research firm.

That problem is not of Whitman's making, but she has made it worse by contradicting herself. Last year, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that she favored a “path to legalization.” When confronted about that in the Republican primary, she said she didn't realize that “legalization” is a “code word for amnesty,” which she opposes. She said she meant to say she supports a temporary-worker program.

That program appears nowhere in Whitman's 48-page policy booklet, which she released in March. The one page that addresses immigration (under the heading of “other priorities”) sticks exclusively to enforcement measures, such as getting state and local police to undertake workplace raids, and denying undocumented students access to state colleges and universities.

As policy, a temporary-worker program preserves the cognitive dissonance of the status quo: We want you, we don't want you. If you try to apply it to the real world of Diaz Santillan, it falls apart. She worked for Whitman for nine years. There is nothing temporary about that.

Nothing unusual, either. It's not exactly surprising that Whitman employed an undocumented maid. It's common in California. Nevertheless, the situation has the potential to hurt her in all sorts of ways.

First and most obvious, it hurts with Latinos. More than 40 percent of Latinos had yet to decide between Brown and Whitman when the housekeeper story broke, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll. A poll by Latino Decisions showed that among Latinos, the greatest number of undecided were those who had been naturalized within the last 10 years; in other words, the voters who were most on the fence were those most likely to identify with Diaz Santillan.

Whitman's “standing among Latinos was already precarious 14 days ago,” Segura says. “This was a disaster for her.”

Second, hard-core immigration restrictionists might be expected to abandon Whitman as well. Many such voters already were suspicious of her, and they may well conclude that she must have known Diaz Santillan was illegal. On Election Day, such voters could either stay home or cast a protest ballot for Chelene Nightingale, the American Independent Party candidate who has the backing of such anti-immigration diehards as ex–Rep. Tom Tancredo and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“It's definitely helped us,” says Nightingale, who admits she often is accused of being a spoiler. “But since this Maidgate happened, people come up and say, 'We're voting for you.' ”

Nightingale, who professes a belief in the coming “North American Union” (“It's like the European Union. Lou Dobbs reported about it a lot.”), polled at 1 percent in the most recent Public Policy Institute survey.

That trend will be tempered somewhat by the instinct of conservatives and partisans to rally around their candidate when she's under attack.

“The worst possible messenger was Gloria Allred,” says Mike Spence, a conservative activist who has pushed the Republican Party establishment to be tougher on immigration. “Conservatives like to fight, and fighting Gloria Allred created a great opportunity. I don't think it's hurt [Whitman] as much as some people would think.”

Third and perhaps least obvious, the story could hurt Whitman among women. In the Field Poll issued in September, Whitman and Brown were tied among female votores — a striking result, given Democrats' large historic advantage among women.

“It's an issue having to do with domestic help,” notes Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll, who says he is curious to see how women will react. “There could be a greater identification for [the housekeeper's] role in this.”

Allred, who has emphasized how Diaz Santillan was treated during her pregnancy, says Whitman never bought the baby a gift, never called to ask how the baby was doing, and threatened to terminate Diaz Santillan if she herself couldn't find a fill-in housekeeper. (Whitman's staff counters, saying that she and Diaz Santillan exchanged gifts over the holidays, and that Whitman still has the pillow covers her housekeeper gave her.) The arguments by both sides seem calculated to appeal to female voters.

It's hard not to attribute a similar motive to the Whitman campaign's decision to grab onto the “whore” controversy with both hands. The remark got Brown in some hot water with his feminist allies — even Allred issued a statement of condemnation — and chewed up a couple of news cycles.

More important, from Whitman's perspective: It changed the subject. Just talking about immigration is likely to increase the issue's salience with voters, which cuts against her. Even in front of a Latino audience at the Balboa Bay Club last Friday, she never mentioned immigration.

Standing stiff-backed against the wall was Fabian Villalobos. He's from Mexico and lives in Santa Ana. He's been a waiter at the Balboa Bay Club for seven years. In an interview, Villalobos says he and his wife had seen Diaz Santillan crying on TV. He thought it was all a bit scripted, but his wife was upset. She said “bad things,” Villalobos says, like, “They are always abusing Mexicans that don't have papers.”

Villalobos can't vote — he has a green card. But his wife, a U.S. citizen, will be casting her ballot for Jerry Brown.

LA Weekly