By Ken McLaughlin

Mercury News
Posted: 02/25/2010 06:40:27 PM PST
Updated: 02/26/2010 12:39:52 AM PST

WALNUT CREEK — Gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt, but not marry. Illegal immigration is a huge problem, but immigrant children shouldn’t be punished for the sins of their parents. And California is a mess, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to fail.

In her first major interview since kicking her campaign into high gear, Meg Whitman, the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, revealed her views on issues ranging from the “right to carry” movement to offshore oil drilling, Sarah Palin, the state budget and education reform.

Whitman, the former eBay chief, has been under attack by Democrats and her Republican rival, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, for avoiding debates and California political reporters and for not being specific enough on issues.

But in a fast-paced, 40-minute interview with the Mercury News, Whitman said she’s trying to “be as accessible as I can be” while giving political stump speeches around the state.

And she was far more polished than she appeared in a February 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, during which the political novice often seemed unschooled in the issues of the day — such as school vouchers, a key Republican issue.

In Wednesday night’s interview, conducted after a speech to a Republican group in Walnut Creek, Whitman came across as a quick study — politically savvy and surprisingly comfortable in her own political skin. After months of speculation about just where she falls on the ideological spectrum, she described herself as an “extraordinary fiscal conservative” who is “moderate to conservative” on social issues.

Much of her opponents’ criticism against her has focused on how she would close the state’s $20 billion budget deficit — a gap so huge that Intelligence Squared, a British organization that holds debates around the world, recently declared California America’s “first failed state.”

Whitman has called for the elimination of 40,000 state jobs, which would bring the number of jobs in California government to the same level as five years ago. She says the reduction could be done through attrition over her first four-year term.

But skeptics have pointed out that axing those jobs would save only $3.3 billion, leaving more than $16 billion to go.

Pressed for details on where else she would cut, Whitman said the state could also save enormous sums by reducing the pensions of new employees; cutting fraud in social programs such as Medi- Cal, welfare and In-Home Supportive Services; and updating computer systems to reduce fraud and increase efficiency.

“I want to go after the bureaucracy,” she said, adding that she will do a top-down review of the growth of programs and their effectiveness. “We have to do more with less,” she said. “And the only way to do that is through technology.”

No doubt, her political opponents — and voters — will demand more detailed answers and harder numbers during the campaign. Many fiscal experts say politicians shouldn’t be allowed to get away with saying they’ll solve enormous budget problems simply by reducing “waste, fraud and abuse.”

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a left-leaning think tank, said Thursday that Whitman is in for a few surprises if she becomes the next governor.

“Been there, done that,” she said. “Generalities don’t balance the budget.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, she said, made many of the same suggestions when he was running in the 2003 election that recalled Gov. Gray Davis. Most of the “low-hanging fruit” has already been cut, Ross said.

Whitman, however, insisted she’ll do better.

“I have a lot of respect for Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said. “He’s done a number of very good things,” such as reforming workers’ compensation and the way legislative districts are drawn.

“But I think he has not done as much as he had hoped,” she said, in part because he had never run a large organization before taking office.

If elected, Whitman said, she would move to Sacramento — unlike Schwarzenegger —and get to know every senator and assembly member by name, letting them know what she “will and will not put up with.”

Whitman also said she would set a goal of adding 2 million private sector jobs in California during her first term, largely by creating a business-friendly atmosphere in which unnecessary regulations are jettisoned.

Asked to reconcile her stance against same-sex marriage with her willingness to allow gays and lesbians to adopt children, Whitman said she believes the term “marriage” should apply only to the union of a man and a woman. Still, she’s in favor of granting equal rights to gay people through civil unions and domestic partnerships.

And she approves letting gays adopt because “many kids need a great home.”

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