Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

They’re two high-profile, highly competitive female CEOs of national stature who share the same party – and worked for the same 2008 presidential candidate, Republican John McCain.

But former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a California gubernatorial candidate, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who is running for U.S. Senate, have shared surprisingly little else in their current quests for public office.

In style – and substance – the two women present a strikingly different approach to a complex world in which they are learning their way: California politics.

The candidates’ schedules and outreach revealed those differences Friday, when Fiorina mesmerized hundreds of young girls – most of them Latina and living below the poverty line – during the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s special women and girls summit at a San Jose middle school.

In a deeply personal address, the Senate candidate, speaking without notes, told crowds of 13-year-olds, “I’ve been scared, too,” relating to her days as an unemployable college graduate and temp secretary whose father once reprimanded her as someone who might “never amount to anything.” She said education was the key to choose a future “for yourself,” then took questions from reporters.

By contrast, Whitman, a far more sheltered candidate who has spent $39 million of her own money on her campaign, has been seen and heard mostly on TV and radio advertisements. As she prepared for a rare public event in the Bay Area today – an address to the Commonwealth Club in Lafayette – Whitman had no public schedule on Friday. Her campaign released a letter urging her competitor, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, to withdraw from the race.
Whitman not in debate

While Fiorina’s camp finished plans for an hourlong televised debate with fellow Senate candidates Tom Campbell and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine and planned upcoming editorial board meetings across the state, Whitman’s camp insisted she won’t attend a debate next month at the Republican state convention in Santa Clara, just 12 miles from her home. Campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said it was still unknown if Whitman will speak to editorial boards.

Fiorina, in an interview Friday after her speech, declined to comment directly on Whitman – or the differences in their strategy and style.

But she said, “I think one of the great privileges of office is that you get to meet a lot of people and you get to learn from a lot of people. I don’t know how you represent people unless you know them,” she said.

Fiorina added that she has decided to make herself available for questions from the public and media – a strategy that campaign strategists acknowledge carries risks. Last week, she took criticism for suggesting the state of California might consider bankruptcy in its current financial mess – a line her campaign aides said later she didn’t mean literally.

“My decision has been to be very accessible to you all (reporters), because you help people to get to know me. That’s important,” she said.

Whitman spokeswoman Pompei defended her candidate’s campaign strategy Monday, insisting that the former eBay leader “is actively on the campaign trail talking to Californians about how we can create a new California – cutting spending, creating jobs and fixing education.”

In a break from traditional Commonwealth Club appearances, Whitman is not expected to meet with reporters post-speech – but Pompei insisted that she has been talking to “California reporters as well as national reporters.”
Some see double standard

With four months until the June primary, political observers say the two female CEOs’ dramatically different styles may be irrelevant in a state where money talks loud in politics.

So far in the races for governor and U.S. Senate, “only one candidate has a campaign in California – and that’s Whitman,” said University of Southern California political science Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, thanks to Whitman’s move to buy air time with her billions.

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