By Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor
sleavenworth@sacbee.com The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Sep. 19, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 19, 2010 – 11:31 am

Barring unforeseen events – such as a certain candidate’s reaction to this column – I am expecting to have my first face-to-face meeting Monday with Meg Whitman, the Republican Party nominee for California governor.

It promises to be an interesting encounter.

Despite spending roughly $150 million on her campaign to date, Whitman has yet to attain clear front-runner status in her contest against Democrat Jerry Brown – as she did early against Steve Poizner in the GOP primary.

During that earlier contest, Whitman was often gun-shy with the media. There was that bizarre moment in March when she invited reporters to a news conference with the state railroad commissioner, but then left, refusing to take questions. A month earlier, as my colleague Dan Walters reported, she “imperiously ignored a reporter who attempted to question her before a closed-door speech to a business group in Sacramento.”

Since the primary, Whitman has become steadily more open to reporters and editorial boards, allowing us to offer a full picture of this candidate. It’s also become clear she faces a real challenge from Brown.

I’d like to think there is a connection between these two circumstances.

On Monday, The Bee’s editorial board is scheduled to meet with Whitman and later in the week with Brown. These are the type of editorial board meetings The Bee has held, prior to endorsements, since its founding in the mid-19th century.

These gatherings are almost always illuminating.

You can learn much about candidates by studying their policy positions, examining track records and watching them perform on the stump and in debates. But there is no substitute for face-to-face questioning. Responses by candidates tell much about how they would operate in office. Are they direct in their answers, or do they deflect and obfuscate? Do they just stick to a script or are they capable of intelligent ad-libbing?

Are they grandstanders? Or are they so reserved in their answers that interviewers must act like dentists, pulling teeth? Are candidates defensive when asked a pointed or personal question? Or do they have a sense of humor and are they capable – heaven forbid – of showing human warmth?

Time and again I’ve seen Jerry Brown described as enigmatic, partly because of his history of unpredictable stances. Yet we’ve seen Brown in office. We know how he operates, even if he is difficult to pigeonhole.

Whitman is more of a question mark, even though her smiling face is everywhere now – on TV, radio, websites and billboards.

Whitman has taken numerous stances that demand further elaboration – such as how she would reduce the state work force by 40,000 people, and how she would cut $15 billion in state spending while protecting public education and increasing state investments in higher education.

Yet probably the biggest question surrounding Whitman is whether she can transition from a corporate culture to a culture of government.

Businesses, to be competitive, have to put a premium on protecting trade secrets and keeping certain information confidential. Can Whitman adjust to the goldfish bowl of government, where the public expects some degree of transparency?

Whitman’s book, “The Power of Many,” offers some clues. In it, she expresses regular frustration with the media, particularly CNN, which aggressively covered eBay’s computer system crashes in the late 1990s.

The former eBay CEO also describes getting “hundreds of angry emails from the eBay community” after making controversial decisions. “When I was on CNN during our outages I ran out of ways to say, ‘We’re on it, we hope to be up soon and I’m so sorry that this happened,'” she writes.

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