By Dan Morain, Senior editor The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1E

It’s not easy being Steve Poizner, at least not when you’re compared to former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman.

Poizner made a bunch of money in his earlier Silicon Valley life. Whitman made a ton of money, too, though her bundle may exceed a billion dollars and perhaps is bigger than his.

Searching for second acts, Poizner and Whitman have set their sights on becoming governor and are battling for this year’s Republican nomination in what promises to become the priciest gubernatorial primary in U.S. history.

There, the comparisons end; the differences come into focus daily, especially this past week.

Poizner, the sitting insurance commissioner, is an engineer by training. He gained his wealth by building startup companies and developing a chip most of us use and only vaguely comprehend.

Whitman, who regularly failed to vote until recent elections, comes armed with a Harvard MBA and headed a company that everyone knows. Having been among the highest paid woman in American business for a time, she has attained celebrity status.

Their approaches to the campaign could not be more different. Poizner spent one of his mornings last week answering journalists’ questions in an hourlong grilling on a stage in front of California newspaper executives at the downtown Sheraton Grand Hotel.

His style befits the Silicon Valley engineer he is – no tie, a shirt open at the collar, kind of nerdy and very earnest. Whitman has called herself “frumpy,” though judging from her many television appearances, she is getting help accessorizing these days.

Poizner spoke of his support for charter schools, his year volunteer teaching in a tough San Jose school, his views about health insurance, his opposition to open primaries, his belief in open government, how California spends too much on welfare, and, oh, in case you hadn’t heard, how Whitman won’t debate him.

Poizner stepped off the stage and hung around with political reporters until they ran out of questions. Then he walked to the banquet room next door where he spent an hour speaking to the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce.

On that very morning, Whitman was on the other side of the country touting her newly released book, “The Power of Many,” on the “Today” show, easily swatting Matt Lauer’s softball questions.

Lauer: “You say that if you follow an ethical and true course, you can unleash the power of many. What do you mean by that?”

Whitman: “Well, remember what the power of many is. What we can do together none of us can do alone. And eBay was a perfect example of that. We created the trading platform, but it was eBay buyers and sellers who built the company.”

The Sacramento Sheraton is a fine place. But the Harvard Club it’s not. From the “Today” set, Whitman made her way to the rather more posh red brick 19th-century building in Manhattan where a dress code of business casual is expected and where, evidently, she discussed “The Power of Many” at a luncheon.

On her fabulous East Coast trip, Whitman also spoke at the Russian Tea Room, which calls itself “a second home for boldface names and the intellectual elite.” Then there was the visit to Fox News for an interview with Neil Cavuto, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

She traveled down to Washington, D.C., where she spoke to the Washington Area Board of Trade on Thursday, and ended the day at a $1,000 per ticket fundraiser at the McLean, Va., home of Republican power couple Bobbie and Bill Kilberg. The Kilbergs’ GOP pedigree stretches from Richard Nixon’s administration to that of George W. Bush. On her way West, Whitman laid over for another luncheon at the Junior League of Chicago, dress code enforced.

Poizner rounded his week by meeting in Sacramento with pro-gun advocates (he claims to be a big Second Amendment guy, though he does not currently own a firearm), doing some insurance commissioner work, speaking to a gathering of Silicon Valley techies and visiting the San Jose Mercury News editorial board.

The primary election is more than five months off. But there is, as always, the question of money.

So far, Poizner has given himself $19 million and raised $2 million from others for his gubernatorial campaign. That might be plenty against any candidate not named Meg-a-millions Whitman.

She has given herself $39 million, and counting. She also has raised at least $7 million, and is drawing on a national base, having spent 2007 and 2008 on the presidential campaign trail raising money for her mentor, Mitt Romney, and later John McCain.

Can Poizner match her spending? “It’s not an eBay auction,” he told me, “but we’re going to make sure our candidacy is well-financed.”

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