By Anthony York

March 18, 2010

Reporting from Sacramento

Faced with the daunting prospect of being significantly outspent by his likely Republican opponent, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown spoke to a labor group Tuesday and urged it to go on the offensive.

“We’re going to attack whenever we can, but I’d rather have you attack,” Brown said at a gathering of the California delegation of the Laborers’ International Union of North America in Sacramento. “I’d rather be the nice guy in this race. We’ll leave [the attacks] to . . . the Democratic Party and others.”

The statement drew a quick attack of its own from Republican Meg Whitman, the front-runner for her party’s nomination.

“This is a troubling example of the cynical style of politics that helped create the terrible crisis California now faces,” Whitman said in a statement released by her campaign office. “In his announcement for governor, Jerry Brown promised us an ‘insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind.’ Clearly, the insider and the labor unions are in full control.”

The rapid exchange underscored two key facts about this year’s race for governor — the impact that Whitman’s huge bank account has had on the strategies of the candidates, and the degree to which she and Brown already are campaigning against each other even though their party primaries are still almost three months away.

Brown has no significant opposition in June’s Democratic primary while Whitman holds a commanding lead in public polls over her rival, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. A Field Poll released Monday showed her leading Poizner 64% to 14%, with 23% undecided or favoring another candidate.

The poll also showed Whitman and Brown in a tight match, one in which the Republican’s campaign spending advantage looms large. Whitman, who became a billionaire as chief executive of EBay, last year contributed $39 million of her own funds to her campaign and seems likely to break all state records for campaign spending. That has put significant pressure on Brown to seek support from groups that favor him, including unions.

Under state law, unions, companies and other groups can spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates but are subject to a key restriction — their spending may not be “made in concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, the candidate on whose behalf, or for whose benefit, the expenditure is made, or any controlled committee or any agent of the candidate.”

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