Steve Poizner

By Ken McLaughlin
Posted: 03/07/2010 05:28:26 PM PST
Updated: 03/07/2010 10:32:37 PM PST

When Republican Steve Poizner ran against Ira Ruskin in a heavily Democratic state Assembly district in 2004, Poizner assured voters he was against the war in Iraq, was 100 percent pro-choice and would stand up to “Republican Party bosses.” But six years after narrowly losing that Peninsula race to the liberal Ruskin, Poizner — who now wants to be governor — is painting himself as the only “true conservative” in the GOP primary.

As California Republicans head to Santa Clara this week for their spring convention, Poizner’s new battle plan puts him in a unique position among the three gubernatorial contenders because both his GOP rival, Meg Whitman, and Democrat Jerry Brown have veered toward the political center. In making his strategy clear this past week, Poizner said he’ll do everything possible to prevent the “coronation” of the “extreme liberal” Whitman, the former eBay chief.

A day after formally declaring his candidacy, Poizner, the state’s insurance commissioner, unleashed his first TV spots. He promised to save the state billions by cutting off benefits to “illegal aliens” and to require police to report them when they’re arrested for other crimes.

Many hard-core conservatives are chomping on the red meat Poizner has tossed their way. On Friday, Poizner picked up the endorsement of Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a conservative standard-bearer. And on Sunday he won the coveted endorsement of the California Republican Assembly, the 75-year-old grass roots organization that Ronald Reagan once called the “conscience of the Republican Party.”

Still, other California conservatives remain suspicious that the previously self-styled “moderate” hasn’t really changed his political stripes.

Political analysts say whether Poizner’s strategy succeeds depends on convincing Republican primary voters, who tend to lean way right, that his conservatism is heartfelt — and not just political opportunism.

“If Poizner thinks that conservatives always embrace recent converts, he should have a word with President Romney,” said John Pitney, a government and politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. He was referring to Mitt Romney’s flip-flops on everything from abortion to gun control to gays in the military after deciding to seek the 2008 GOP presidential nomination following his term as Massachusetts governor.

Poizner’s political makeover hasn’t been as dramatic. But to many who first met him in 2004 when he ran for the 21st Assembly seat, it has been just as startling.

Consider that in May 2004 Poizner told a Mercury News reporter: “The right wing of the Republican Party does not represent me.” And during a Comcast debate five months later, he accused Ruskin and his consultants of trying “to confuse people” and “make people believe that I’m not really a moderate Republican.”

Alissa Shaw, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates Mar Monte, said the organization decided not to endorse either Ruskin or Poizner in 2004 because “we had the best of both worlds — two candidates who returned 100 percent pro-choice questionnaires.” To get that high a rating, a candidate must support public funding of abortions, oppose parental consent laws and back a woman’s right to choose the abortion method most likely to preserve her health, including so-called partial-birth abortion.

Today, Poizner is attacking Whitman for not wanting to overturn a 1981 state Supreme Court decision requiring public funding of abortions. And he now opposes partial-birth abortion and would support a law requiring minors to get their parents’ permission to end a pregnancy.

Six years ago, Poizner sought the backing of BAYMEC, a Santa Clara County political organization that advocates for gay rights, telling the group he opposed the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act. The 1996 law allows states to deny recognition of same-sex marriages performed in another state.

BAYMEC founder Wiggsy Sivertsen says the group ultimately backed Ruskin because, unlike Poizner, the Democrat unequivocally supported legalizing gay marriage in California. But she remembers how members were thrilled to see a Republican who “seemed so liberal on many social issues.” Poizner even donated $1,250 to BAYMEC to buy a table at its annual dinner in 2004. So she was disappointed to see Poizner, now aggressively wooing “traditional values” voters, recently come out against California recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.

“To see him do this is very disturbing,” Sivertsen said. “It implies that politics is about expediency and not about what’s moral or what’s right.”

Still, flip-flops aren’t always political suicide.

Such makeovers “happen with candidates in both parties,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “The key for a candidate is if he can explain credibly why he has changed his mind.”

In an interview with the Mercury News last week, Poizner was asked to do just that.

The former Silicon Valley entrepreneur traced some of his newfound positions to his arrival in the state capital after being elected insurance commissioner in 2006.

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