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What About Meg?

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is supposed to be the year of the (Republican) woman. It is most certainly the year of millionaire business execs no one ever heard of a month or two ago giving Democratic fixtures (e.g., Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Andrew Cuomo in New York) a run for their money. It is the year of newcomers and fresh faces, without regard to such pesky matters as qualifications (e.g., Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware).

So what about Meg Whitman?

On the eve of her first debate with Democrat Jerry Brown -- who goes back about four decades in California politics -- the former CEO of eBay and one of the most successful businesswomen in the world is either tied with or behind her opponent, depending on which poll you believe. For months, while Whitman was spending some $115 million of her own money to trumpet her experience and her plans for California's future, Brown was almost invisible. He surfaced mainly in the criticisms emanating from many Democrats that his stealth campaign and his late start -- not to mention his long history of controversial positions (he opposed Prop. 13, which has since become the third rail in California politics, and appointed Rose Bird, who was the first California Supreme Court justice to be axed by voters -- would doom Democratic chances.

Not so fast. If someone had asked me to pick a favorite six months ago, I wouldn't have paused to predict Whitman. Today, if I were a betting woman, I'd bet on Brown. In the meantime, virtually every "force" in national politics is favoring candidates like Whitman.

Is California really so different from the rest of the country? Or is it that Whitman, or at least the Whitman campaign, is so different from the Republicans who are on the move across the country? The answer is almost certainly some of both.

In the latest USC-Los Angeles Times poll, Hispanic voters favored Brown over Whitman by about 18 points and, in the Senate race, preferred incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina by more than twice that. Huge. Perhaps nowhere in the country is the fallout of immigration politics, and especially the Arizona law, hurting Republicans as much as it is in California. Facing primaries, both Whitman and Fiorina were forced to move right. Whitman didn't endorse the Arizona law, but she came as close as she could while maintaining a chance in the general election by running ads about taking a hard line against illegal immigrants and opposing any form of amnesty.

Then there is the matter of her wealth. It's one thing to be a successful businessman -- like Cuomo's opponent in New York, Carl Paladino, and Feingold's opponent in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson. It's quite another to be a billionaire who can afford to pour more than $100 million into the race, with six weeks to go.

The money has become an issue. Everyone jokes about how she should have just cut a check for each of us. Every time you see a Whitman ad, it's hard not to think about how rich she is. At a time when so many people are unemployed, there's something almost obscene about giving your ad men that kind of cash to inundate us with ads we don't want to see.

The positive ads are distinctly unmemorable. Sure, she's got a plan. Who doesn't? There's no emotion in them, certainly no anger. What does someone with $115 million to blow on mostly mushy ads have to be angry about? Her best spot -- the one using Bill Clinton's 1992 attack on Brown's record as governor -- turned out to be based on admitted factual errors, which Brown has trumpeted. Brown's ads lack the fancy production values of Whitman's, but the oldest rule of politics is that such things don't really matter in moving voters.

You can be sure the ad men aren't telling her that. When campaign ads stop working, the usual advice is not to do fewer, but to do more. Did I mention that ad men generally get a percentage of the buy? Whether she wins or loses, Whitman is making some folks very rich.

The irony is that compared to many of the other women leading the Republican charge, Whitman is far more qualified. She's smart and successful. She may not know her way around Sacramento, but she certainly has credibility as someone who's created a lot of jobs.

But Brown, battle-scarred though he is, is still one of the best politicians of his generation. He is the consummate political survivor. He is tough as nails. He isn't running a "morning in America" campaign. His tough, in-your-face style matches the mood of the electorate just as well as his Moonbeam persona matched an earlier time. I wouldn't bet against him.
 
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