Meg Whitman

By Steven Harmon
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 03/29/2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Updated: 03/29/2010 07:10:34 AM PDT

SACRAMENTO — Patience is a tough virtue to uphold for Democrats following the gubernatorial race, especially as Republican Meg Whitman’s unfettered run on radio and TV has catapulted her to the center of California’s political universe.

Whitman, the billionaire ex-CEO of eBay, has been on air continuously since last summer, parlaying $46 million into a lead in at least two statewide polls over Jerry Brown, the Democrats’ lone major candidate.

One Democratic operative said the polls should be a “wake-up call” to start moving into a general election mind-set against Whitman, who has a 50-point lead over her Republican primary rival, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

“The risk for Democrats is that the longer we allow Meg Whitman to paint the canvass, the harder it is to catch up,” said Sean Clegg, campaign manager for the union-backed independent expenditure group, Level the Playing Field. “It’s difficult to change an image after it’s been locked in.”

Clegg on Friday sent out a blast e-mail to 700,000 Democrats, asking for donations, and Level the Playing Field strategists have been meeting with potential large donors and labor groups to convey urgency.

But others are warning against overreacting to Whitman’s early strides, saying there are still 10 weeks to go in the Republican primary for Poizner to cut into Whitman’s momentum and provide enough of a distraction to Whitman to keep her from training her sights solely on Brown.

“Before Meg ever gets to face Jerry, she has to face Poizner, who is about to open his wallet,” said Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Democratic activists would love to see Jerry Brown engage now, but Brown understands that when two Republicans are about to clock each other, you stand out of the way.”

A sanguine Brown, meanwhile, continues working his day job as state attorney general, holding fundraisers, and is even attentive to his two Oakland charter schools. Perhaps the most experienced politician in California, Brown said he’s not going to panic every time a poll shows Whitman ahead of him.

“I think people at the end of the day, by November, get enough information,” Brown said in an interview last week. “Not necessarily by May, but by November. There’s so much back and forth, so much seeps into the consciousness of the voters. People will decide who’s going to be on their side.”

Democrats aren’t going to keep up with Whitman’s spending pace, so they can’t worry about trying to combat her day-to-day media advantages, several strategists said. Solace for Democrats can be found in “structural advantages” such as a 14-point registration edge (44.6 percent to 30.8 percent) over Republicans, Brown’s near universal name recognition, and history that shows the political carcasses of a handful of wealthy would-be governors.

“Jerry and Democrats have to hunker down,” said Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant. “It’s a one-sided conversation now, but when Democrats start pushing back, and it probably won’t happen until sometime this summer, it will have an impact. The long view is you can’t stop Meg from spending her money. You can’t get drawn into a firefight because you’ll get outgunned, so you have to be disciplined, strategic.”

Labor groups, which are expected to provide much of the support Brown will need to compete with the Republican nominee, have yet to weigh in significantly. The California Nurses Association and the California Faculty Association contributed $100,000 apiece to Level the Playing Field, a far cry from the $20 million the group said it hopes to raise. Another group, California Working Families, has vowed to raise another $20 million, but has not reported any contributions yet.

It’s still early, said Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which won’t make a formal endorsement in the governor’s race until later in the spring.

“We know the process well and certainly we’ve never been shy in supporting candidates we believe will better serve our members and the state of California,” Corcoran said.

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