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Whitman Can Spend, but Can She Govern?

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"Meg 2010, Building a New California," the glossy 40-plus-page "policy agenda" for former eBay CEO and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, is so slick that it sat on my desk for weeks before I could finish it. I would pick it up, think that, like her candidacy, it is overly packaged, and toss it back on the pile of papers that litter my desk. It does a great job of laying out California's financial woes and suggesting possible reforms -- but it leaves out how she'll get things done in Sacramento.

I could not help but think about Meg the Magazine at Sunday night's debate at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose with Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Whitman narrowly won the debate, in that she focused on what she would do for voters as governor. Whitman clearly has a keen understanding of what California businesses need in order to thrive. But I am not sure she understands how to squeeze the goods from the left-of-left Legislature. Good ideas, little delivery -- Californians have seen that movie throughout the Schwarzenegger years.

After pouring $49 million of her own money into her campaign, Whitman still does not talk with the fluency that comes from a personal history on political controversies. She talks intimately about eBay, but not California politics.

Hence, she failed to convince me she could take on the inevitable Democratic nominee, Attorney General Jerry Brown, in November -- whereas Poizner seemed pitched for a fight.

Both Republicans hit the other for not being sufficiently conservative. Whitman bashed Poizner for having given $200,000 to Proposition 39, a 2000 ballot measure approved by voters that undercut Proposition 13 by lowering the threshold to pass school bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent of the vote. She also noted that Poizner opposed the Bush tax cuts when he ran for the Assembly in 2004.

Poizner responded that at least he was a Republican active in politics over the last decade. While Whitman didn't even register as a Republican until 2007, Poizner volunteered in public schools, steeped himself in the charter school movement and ran for office in a decidedly Democratic district. Failing in that race, he went on to win the state insurance commissioner's post, a rare statewide office win for a Republican. Poizner proclaimed, "I'm not a rookie."

Whitman tried to hit Poizner for moving to the right in recent years when she said, "Steve is an engineer. He engineers a new position for every office he's running for."

Let me say this: Poizner has moved to the right since 2004 on a number of issues. His anti-illegal immigration ads strike many in the GOP as cynical and bad for a party that badly needs to attract Latino voters in November.

Whitman dismissed Poizner's debate demeanor as "angry." I'd call him scrappy. There is something to be said for a candidate who is eager to debate and engage critics. He does not hide behind a palace guard.

As for Whitman, because she has spent so much and is willing to spend more, her campaign is all about her inevitability.

The problem, as Hillary Rodham Clinton could tell anyone, is that when the inevitability model crumbles, there's no cookie left.

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