As Whitman tries to project a common touch, Schwarzenegger continues to shape-shift, and Bill Clinton hopes his words are still golden in this state.

By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times
October 17, 2010

Three things could be gleaned from a cursory look at the political world last week, three weeks out from California’s most competitive election in decades.

Meg Whitman likes food.

Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to antagonize.

And Bill Clinton still loves California.

All of those truths had less to do last week with food, antagonism and love than they did with image, the separate political identities that two of them have spent a varied number of years trying to concoct, and one the third is trying desperately to broaden.

For Whitman, last week marked a turning point, her first sustained effort at among-the-people campaigning in her long slog toward the governor’s office.

Whitman has given more than $141.5 million of her own money to her candidacy. Although that has had its political benefits — it has powered the most extensive advertising presence ever seen in California and a behemoth of a campaign structure — it has also isolated her from contact with regular folks and cinched in their minds the fact that Whitman is a billionaire.

When campaign polls are released, candidates and their consultants pay close attention to who’s ahead and who’s not. But they also gaze with a certain amount of stress at underlying findings.

One of the most important derives from a question intended to figure out which candidate voters think understands people like them. It gets at a central truth among people of all political stripes: They want someone in charge who, in a pinch, thinks like them, and of them.

A Times Poll last month asked that question, and the answer foretold problems for Whitman. Among voters deemed likely to cast ballots in this election, Democrat Jerry Brown had a 12-point lead over her on the question of which candidate better understood them. Among women, a key target group for Whitman, the gap was 17 points.

There are a few ways to convince people that you get them. Oratory is one, as Barack Obama showed as he moved from little-known Illinois senator to runaway victor in the 2008 presidential race. A conviviality of spirit is another, as Ronald Reagan showed in his various elections in California and nationally.

Whitman has demonstrated neither compelling oratory nor a common-man touch, but last week she was gamely going for the latter as her campaign chowed its way up the state.

The morning after Tuesday night’s debate with Brown, widely seen as Whitman’s best of three confrontations, she bounded into Philippe’s French dip shop in downtown Los Angeles, aiming to display her normal-person sensibilities before the arrayed television cameras.

She ordered a beef double dip, coleslaw on the side and a Diet Coke and conversed with workers and a few patrons. She sat down with two diners to talk about job creation. And she appeared to be thinking about the prospects of the sandwich dripping onto her blazer.

“Don’t they say, ‘Don’t let politicians eat?’ ” she joked under her breath, looking around for an aide who was asking photographers not to film the candidate doing just that.

The next day she was in Bakersfield, at Philliedog, a local hot dog chain, where she used a plastic knife to carve up a chili dog under the glare of the cameras.

“I don’t think I could take this pressure,” one patron said.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” Whitman replied.

By Friday she was at an In-N-Out Burger in suburban Sacramento, where, used to it or not, she was unwilling to risk a public eating of a double-double with animal fries. A chocolate shake it was, though her aides were seen carrying food onto the campaign bus as reporters departed.

More experienced at the notion of crafting a public persona is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose previous profession revolved solely around pretending to be someone audiences would lap up.

During his campaign for governor and during the seven years since, Schwarzenegger has veered from one political persona to the next. He came into office as the independent-minded Republican who held several key Democratic policy positions, effectively covering all the bases in the state.

After an initial bipartisan push, he veered toward the Republican side in 2005 and was smacked by voters for it when they turned down his wide-ranging ballot measures. He moved back to the center and then veered a bit to the left on the issue of global warming.

By last week, he was quite literally back in the middle, firing at both sides via Twitter. He tweeted his endorsement of Florida’s Charlie Crist in the Senate race there. Crist, the state’s governor, bailed from the Republican contest to run as an independent when “tea party” favorite Marco Rubio cornered GOP support.

And Schwarzenegger took off after both Brown and Whitman, neither of whom he has endorsed. He said it was wrong of one of Brown’s associates to suggest Whitman was a “whore” for allegedly crafting her pension plan to draw the endorsements of public safety unions. But the governor’s insult to Whitman was even more biting. It occurred when a Twitter follower asked Schwarzenegger what he thought about Whitman “selling her vote.”

“It’s appalling when anyone sells out,” he replied, giving not a word of support to his own party’s nominee.

It was Friday in Los Angeles, and Bill Clinton was back. He has been such a presence in the state’s politics, for so long, that it is difficult to remember how he was introduced to it: In 1992, he was trying to become the first Democrat to win the state in a presidential election since 1964.

Since then, California has always gone to Democrats in presidential elections, and Clinton has come to represent the comeback. His popularity here extended to his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who romped to victory in the 2008 presidential primary here despite Obama’s surge elsewhere in the country.

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