Poizner takes a different tack, moving to the right in search of a conservative base.

By Cathleen Decker

March 7, 2010

Their battle for governor joined, front runners Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown raced last week to find the sweet spot that has guaranteed election in all recent California political contests. Although that place has undoubtedly skittered somewhat since the last election, it still resides in the middle ground of California politics, as was evident in the forays of the leading candidates.

Democrat Brown entered the race — finally dropping his “unofficial” pretense — by promising not to raise taxes without voter consent and positioning himself as a seasoned and reasonable would-be governor. Gone was the to-the-bastions tremor of his 1992 presidential campaign, or for that matter of his first run for the governorship in 1974.

Republican Whitman aggressively moved to counter Brown’s burst of announcement publicity, hammering him on the issue of taxes and questioning his commitment to spending cuts.

Both, in other words, remained largely inside the comfort zone for California voters — in particular those who will matter most in November.

The only candidate not explicitly seeking the moderate middle was Steve Poizner, Whitman’s opponent in the GOP primary, who opened his television ad campaign last week with a sharp rightward veer.

He castigated Whitman, whom he trails in early polling, as a “liberal” and emphasized his conservative views on what he called “illegal aliens.” He closed out his week by reversing part of his position on abortion rights, newly opposing government funding for the procedure.

For Poizner, it was an audacious move to seize the hearts of the conservatives who dominate the primary — but with issues that in the past have discomfited general election voters. It also had a potential upside for Whitman: If she wins the nomination, she might have an easier road in the general election because Poizner helped convince moderate voters that she is one of them.

In lock step thematically if not politically, Brown and Whitman were each forwarding a just-the-facts populism, each suggesting an understanding of the anger directed at government — particularly at Sacramento — and each claiming to be best suited to realistically addressing the deficit-pocked state budget.

“What both Whitman and Brown are doing is waging the general election campaign. That’s the bottom line,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at USC. “That certainly means not getting caught too far on the extremes.”

Elections rest on math. In California, neither Democrats nor Republicans control the majority of the voting population, although the former outnumber the latter. The winner convinces his or her own party to show up and corrals as well the state’s nonpartisan voters.

The fastest-growing group, those nonpartisans tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate — and doctrinaire only on their refusal to adhere to party doctrines. In economic environments like today’s, they want a smaller government, but not a vitriolic one. As much as anything, they side with the candidate they feel they can trust.

For Democrats this year, Brown is the only major candidate on the ballot. Expectations for his entrance were heightened not because his decision to run was in question — he had already commandeered a headquarters and a campaign manager — but because of a perennial question about Brown: Which one would show up?

Would it be the post-Watergate governor of 1974, talking of an era of limits? The presidential candidate of 1980, flush with environmentalism and ambition? The angry presidential candidate of 1992, blasting the power of special interests with his $100 maximum donation limit and his “We the People” slogan?

The Brown who surfaced last week was a mosaic of the others, emphasizing attributes attractive to the mighty middle.

He deferred to the desire of voters — here as elsewhere — for a competent government not wracked by partisan paralysis. He sliced at Whitman’s lack of political experience by alluding to California’s difficulties under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another political outsider whose popularity ratings are scraping the floor.

“We found that not knowing is not good,” Brown said, adding his money line: “We need someone with insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind.”

The downside to Brown’s insider knowledge is the detritus of 40 years in office, laundry that Whitman was only too happy to hang on the communal line. Her campaign forwarded reams of criticism of Brown. The candidate, who has spent much of the campaign dodging queries from reporters, took the unusual step of calling some to make her case against Brown.

In those comments and in her welcome-to-the-campaign blast at the Democrat, Whitman played on the terrain of trust and taxes that may define the November battlefield more than any other issues.

“Jerry Brown has had a 40-year career in politics which has resulted in a trail of failed experiments, undelivered promises, big government spending and higher taxes,” she said.

Neither of the two leading candidates has emphasized party affiliation — it goes unspoken in Whitman’s campaign ads, much as it did in Brown’s announcement video.

Poizner, however, was running a sharply partisan campaign, albeit one that would seem to complicate his chances in November were he to win the GOP nomination. On Friday, he heralded the endorsement of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay), whose conservative bona fides are unquestioned. Poizner also announced a Values Voters Coalition and, simultaneously, his newfound opposition to government funding for abortions.

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