Earlier this month, former Gov. Pete Wilson sent out a letter calling on good Republicans to "unite" behind former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's bid for governor. A largely Democratic effort had been formed to raise $40 million to defeat the billionaire candidate, which Wilson argued, forced Team Whitman to launch its general election campaign early.
It was an arrogant move -- calling the GOP primary before a single voter has cast a ballot in the June 8 election. Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is still in the race. No wonder Poizner recently told me, "She wants to be ordained."
After pouring $39 million of her own money into her campaign, Whitman has blanketed the airwaves with commercials and, as a result, has been trouncing Poizner in the polls. Poizner, who is also rich and put about $19 million into his effort, has preferred to campaign using free media, including debates with former rival Tom Campbell (which Whitman skipped). Poizner wants to debate at the GOP convention in March. Whitman says no.
I reached Wilson on his cell phone Wednesday to ask: How can a candidate who never has run for office, and ducked every debate to date, dare to try to elbow out of the primary the one candidate who has won statewide office?
Wilson answered that even though Whitman is skipping a debate at the March GOP convention, she has agreed to a later debate. I should understand, he said, that Whitman is doing what all savvy candidates, including the likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Jerry Brown, do -- limiting debates and press interviews. "You don't accept every one," Wilson explained, using his why-do-I-even-have-to-say-this voice. "I think this is small potatoes, Debra."
Wilson added, "I don't know what more clear evidence there is" that Whitman is the stronger Republican, other than the fact that Democrats have made it clear that she is the Republican "they don't want to face in November."
Indeed, protesters turned out to picket against Whitman on Tuesday night as she addressed the Commonwealth Club in Lafayette. Big Labor and big Democrats have put together an independent expenditure effort called Level the Playing Field 2010 -- an allusion to Whitman's supersize wealth, if an odd title for a group dedicated to outspending any entity that tries to introduce fiscal discipline to Sacramento.
Inside, the Commonwealth Club moderator was a chummy fellow who asked only one tough question about her spotty voting record. (Whitman responded with a mea culpa.)
In the course of some 100 minutes, Whitman proposed a moratorium on new regulations, loosening workplace rules and enacting "targeted tax relief" to keep businesses in California. She pledged to interview her top 300 appointees personally, with one-third coming from the private sector.
Like Poizner, Whitman argues that job creation will have to take care of the state's fiscal woes in the long run. In the end, I was skeptical of her call for tax cuts (in the face of a $20-billion state budget shortfall) and of her proposals for balancing the budget, in part through hiring attrition. But I also thought she understands what employers need to keep them in California, hopefully hiring more workers.
I still don't know why GOP voters are supposed to trust Whitman to take on Jerry Brown, when they don't even know if she can outtalk Poizner.
I wondered afterward if maybe Team Whitman should try to make a virtue out of her strong-arm tactics. After all, the next governor is going to have to cut state spending in ways that will invite the wrath of entrenched political forces that usually get their way. (Hence the growth in state government by about 30 percent under both Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.)
Asked to rate Schwarzenegger, Whitman said she had "a lot of respect" for him. But: "The results are not good." No lie. No one argues that Schwarzenegger did what he set out to do.
Maybe Californians need a ruthless, imperious governess to steamroll the usual opposition. Maybe the professionals who claim to want a level playing field need to get leveled.
I still want to see Whitman facing tough follow-up questions and not ducking unscripted events. But as Sacramento sinks ever into the red, I have to wonder if California's "Hail Caesar" moment is coming.