By Ken McLaughlin and Denis C. Theriault

Mercury News
Posted: 01/24/2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Updated: 01/24/2010 03:41:48 AM PST

At first blush, the political DNA of Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner looks pretty darn similar.

Both are Republicans who got extremely rich in Silicon Valley. Both are social moderates — in favor of abortion rights, in favor of giving gay couples all the rights of married people through civil unions — with some history of cutting checks to Democrats. Both are unabashedly pro-business.

Then why are these two candidates for California governor about to begin slicing and dicing each other up for all the world to see?

One reason is that another Silicon Valley moderate, Tom Campbell, has departed the race to run for U.S. Senate, changing the dynamics in ways both subtle and profound.

“Campbell was a buffer — a human Alsace-Lorraine,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Without Campbell there, it’s likely to get much uglier much faster.”

Before, Whitman and Poizner would have had to keep a lid on nastiness for fear the famously genteel Campbell would “slip through the middle” as the public became repulsed by multimillion-dollar mudslinging, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst.

That, she noted, is exactly what happened in 1998, when airline mogul Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman of Southern California burned through hunks of their personal fortunes attacking each other, only to see the poor man in the race, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, grab the prize.

So now, Californians, get ready for a wild, crazy ride.

“This race is quickly going to go to DefCon 1,” said Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the state Republican Party. “You’ll see an extremely aggressive, high-profile media campaign between two candidates beating the living daylights out of each other.”

Until now, most of the sniping has been conducted on the sidelines, through old and new media and little-watched YouTube ads. Whitman, a former CEO of eBay, has spent millions on plain-vanilla “getting to know you” radio spots. Insurance Commissioner Poizner has worked conservative grass-roots groups while rolling out one policy initiative after another.

But offering a taste of what might come, the Poizner campaign last week zeroed in on a top Whitman campaign adviser, Henry Gomez, a former eBay executive — and Democrat — who backed President Barack Obama. They’ve also questioned Whitman’s charitable giving, noting a Mercury News finding that she gave $300,000 to an environmental group that opposes policies in her platform.

Of the two, analysts say, Poizner has more clearly inched to the right. He’s no Mitt Romney, but Poizner has gradually tweaked his stance on
social issues — such as on public funding for abortions — since running for the Assembly in 2004 and, later, insurance commissioner in 2006.

Poll after poll has indicated Poizner has some serious catching up to do. But, most analysts say, don’t count him out.

“Whitman’s lead is based largely on the fact that she’s been on the air, so more people know her,” said Schnur of USC. “The race is within Poizner’s grasp, but it’s going to require writing a pretty big check.”

That became more obvious last week when Whitman, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, contributed an additional $20 million to her campaign, bringing her total contributions to $39 million — a California record for a mostly self-funded campaign.

Poizner, a former valley entrepreneur, has so far not disclosed what he’s worth, saying only that he’s not a billionaire. But last month, he deposited $15 million into his campaign coffers. Whether he’ll match Whitman’s latest $20 million remains to be seen. Right now his tactic is to bash Whitman for trying to “buy the race” as she avoids debates and press interviews — two forums he’s relied on to get his message to voters. Poizner also rejects the notion that the two are similar, beyond the broad strokes of their resumes and platforms.

And there are differences.

Poizner has proposed across-the-board tax cuts and overhauling the state’s tax code; Whitman wants targeted tax cuts. On California’s water shortages, Poizner would wait to sell billions in bonds until the state pulls out of the red. Both would put off new greenhouse gas rules, but Whitman would delay them only for a year, while Poizner would wait for sustained economic recovery.

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