Dan Morain
Published: Sunday, May. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3E

Suddenly, Meg Whitman has found her missing R.

Whitman has spent a record $83 million on her campaign – $500,000 a day – including an astonishing $48 million on radio and television ads. I steeled myself the other day and listened to and watched all the Whitman commercials I could find.

There are lots of them, more than 30 in all. On those 30- and 60-second spots, Whitman describes herself as a businesswoman, the former eBay chairwoman, a fiscal conservative and a devoted Californian.

Whitman promises to be tough on illegal immigrants and public employee unions, and magically slash spending, create jobs and improve schools.

Whitman neglected to mention one thing. I didn’t hear her say a single time that she is a Republican.

The omission makes sense.

With GOP registration having shrunk to below 31 percent, partisan Republicans don’t stand much chance of winning in California unless they attract some Democrats and many of the 20 percent of voters who decline to state a party preference.

Until recently, Whitman was trying to do just that – running as if she were in a general election. But before a general election, there’s the small matter of the June 8 primary, a Republican primary at that.

Whitman’s lead in public opinion polls once bulged at 50 percentage points. That was before her opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, started talking to Republican voters about issues like illegal immigration.

Poizner has not been shy about making clear his affiliation. His latest television ad says he would be a governor “from the Republican wing of the Republican Party.”

When Whitman’s lead dwindled to single digits a few weeks ago, she pivoted to the right. She still does not go so far as to declare that she is a Republican, at least not on her broadcast ads. But she does make it clear to Republicans that she is one of them.

She is countering Poizner’s signature issue by sounding tough on illegal immigration and promising to send the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border.

She says she is working to defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat whom Republicans love to hate – after having contributed $8,000 to Boxer in 2004, back before Whitman decided she wanted to be governor.

Importantly, a veritable cavalry of Republicans has ridden to her rescue in the past few weeks.

Once and future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are appearing in commercials for Whitman, albeit without stating that Whitman is a Republican.

Significantly for primary voters, former Vice President Dick Cheney signed an opinion piece that recently appeared in the Orange County Register endorsing Whitman as “the Republican the Democrats fear the most in this election.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich signed a similar testimonial in the San Jose Mercury News last week. War horses like Gingrich and Cheney help with Republican voters.

“They’re definitely viewed as partisan Republicans,” Republican strategist John Feliz said. “It is code for saying, ‘I’m a partisan Republican,’ without saying, ‘I’m a partisan Republican.’ It is convoluted, I admit. But that is why code words are so important in politics.”

It’s working. Polls show Whitman has regained her lead. She ought to be defeating Poizner based on the amount of money she has spent.

In the two-month period ending May 22, Whitman outspent Poizner by almost 2 to 1, $33 million to Poizner’s $17 million.

Still, all this Republican politicking should be cause for concern for Whitman. She ought to be worried that she has been drawn into the political equivalent of a murder-suicide pact.

Whitman is appealing to Republican voters by enlisting former Gov. Pete Wilson to declare in radio ads that Whitman will be “tough as nails” on illegal immigration.

But many Latino voters disdain Wilson for his aggressive support for the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 in 1994.

Candidates these days cannot win general elections without winning over some Latino voters. Whitman’s stand on illegal immigration, while not as aggressive as Poizner’s, will make it difficult for her to attract anywhere near the roughly 38 percent of the Latino vote that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger secured when he won re-election in 2006.

Imagine if Gingrich and Cheney were on a statewide ballot in California. They’d be lucky to draw the hard 30 percent of the voters who still call themselves Republican.

After leaving Congress, Gingrich founded a partisan nonprofit corporation called American Solutions for Winning the Future, through which he offers prescriptions to his followers that he thinks would solve what ails the nation.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Gingrich launched the “Drill here, drill now” campaign, petitioning Congress to loosen restrictions on offshore oil exploration.

“Who’s to blame for our high gas prices? The oil companies? The Saudis? OPEC? The answer, unfortunately, is closer to home: The ‘No-We-Can’t’ Left in Congress,” Gingrich wrote in May 2008.

Given the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Californians’ antipathy toward offshore drilling, Whitman takes a more moderate stand on environmental issues. She opposes offshore drilling until “there is zero environmental risk,” said her spokesman, Tucker Bounds.

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