Debra J. Saunders

Why isn't Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner doing better in his bid for governor? On paper, Poizner is a solid contender.

He's the only Republican elected to statewide office in California who hasn't starred in a blockbuster film. He's a successful entrepreneur who struck it rich developing global positioning technology for cell phones. Later in life, he turned to public service, first as a volunteer schoolteacher, then as a candidate for state Assembly. He is a pro-choice Republican who has been able to reach out to the party's conservative base.

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Yet in the latest Field Poll on the GOP primary, Poizner placed last -- garnering support among 9 percent of likely GOP primary voters. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman led with 22 percent of those polled, followed by former Congressman Tom Campbell, a renowned wonk not known for fundraising prowess, at 20 percent.

Now, Poizner could be doing poorly because the campaign has not really begun. As veteran GOP pollster Steve Kinney noted, "Most of the battle right now is inside baseball." Indeed, the biggest winner in the Field Poll among GOP voters was undecided -- at 49 percent.

But in the race among people who are paying attention, Poizner is not where he should be. GOP eminences grises -- like former Gov. Pete Wilson, Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Dan Lungren -- would be expected to back the candidate who paid his dues and has shown he can win statewide; instead they've endorsed Whitman, the newcomer with a spotty voting record.

Former state GOP Chairman Bob Naylor even switched his endorsement from Poizner to Whitman. Naylor told me Poizner's "a great guy" with a "great command" of the landscape, but he believes Whitman has a better chance of attracting independent and Democratic voters. "It's more tone than anything else -- and electability."

GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum believes that Poizner lost the party's centrist graybeards by moving too far to the right in his bid for the top. When Poizner ran for state Assembly in 2004 and lost, he styled himself as "a frustrated moderate Republican," who would not say if he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. In his run for governor, however, Poizner courted the sort of Republicans who grouse that Bush wasn't conservative enough.

Poizner's transition to the gung-ho side of the GOP, Hoffenblum noted, makes insiders wonder, "Is he another Mitt Romney?" (Romney was a maverick Republican when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, then he tilted all-right as a candidate for president.)

Debra J. Saunders

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