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10 Key Things To Know About The High-Stakes California Governor's Race

The hand-picked candidate of Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, billionaire Meg Whitman, is already shattering all spending records in her bid to win the governorship.
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The California governor's race has huge national implications. On the one hand, California is the lynchpin of President Barack Obama's political coalition, its electoral votes providing one-fifth of those needed to win the White House. On the other hand, the hand-picked candidate of Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, billionaire Meg Whitman, is already shattering all spending records in her bid to win the governorship.

Here are 10 key factors in the biggest race in the country.

** The Buy It Now Factor. Billionaire Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO and Goldman Sachs director, has already shattered all primary spending records, and the primary is over two months away. She's already shattered all personal contribution records, and the general election, if she makes it, is over seven months away.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared on his birthday with California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in this discussion of the wonders of corporate America and the evils of labor unions.

The fact is that, were she not a billionaire with a wide open wallet, Meg Whitman would be a non-serious candidate for any statewide office in California, much less the governorship. She's barely bothered to vote, lied about how long she's lived in California, and never expressed any interest in the state's affairs before deciding to be its governor.

Whitman's only experience in politics came in the 2008 presidential elections, in which she served first as Mitt Romney's national finance co-chair (Romney was Whitman's business mentor), then as national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign.

Democrat Jerry Brown is very experienced and very talented. He's raised $15 million and will raise more. Other groups, principally associated with organized labor, are likely to spend more to help his campaign, though so far it's been a lot of hype. But he's in danger of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of advertising fueled by a tsunami of money, the likes of which this media-heavy state has never seen before.

On Earth Day 2009, President Barack Obama praised California for its energy policies, pioneered by Jerry Brown, which have led the way in making the state far more energy efficient than the rest of the country.

Whitman has out-spent Brown by about 200 to 1 since the first of the year. Brown has spent virtually nothing, husbanding his resources, and as a result Whitman now runs even or slightly ahead of the state's attorney general, a maverick two-term governor of California, two-term mayor of gritty Oakland, and two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination.

** The Mitt Romney for President Factor. Whitman had no record to speak of in public affairs prior to emerging in the Republican presidential campaigns of 2008. She never did so much as write an op-ed piece to express her concern about California. So why is she suddenly running for governor of California?

Mitt Romney, who made his fortune as a leveraged buyout artist, provided the answer at last month's state Republican convention, when he and Whitman staged a joint appearance at the party banquet. Her candidacy is his idea, and he talked her into it.

In one of her gauzy ads blanketing the California air waves, endorsers from billionaire Meg Whitman's past and present payrolls describe her as a great corporate executive.

They are both pro-Wall Street big business conservatives, their anti-labor, anti-regulation, pro-tax cuts for wealthy investors and corporations rhetoric mirroring each other.

If Romney has a close ally in the California governorship -- he hired Whitman at the Bain consulting firm and mentored her throughout her career -- he figures that he can break up the Democratic presidential coalition.

** The Meg Whitman Shaky Corporate Record Factor. With no record in public affairs other than her leadership role in the 2008 Republican presidential campaigns -- which she obviously does not want to run on in California, which Obama carried in a landslide -- and no record in philanthropy other than funding a college at alma mater Princeton named after herself, Whitman's only claim to a record of leadership lies in her corporate background.

While she was its CEO, eBay grew to be a behemoth in online auctions. But Whitman made some very big mistakes. Her multi-billion dollar acquisition of Internet telephony business Skype was a disaster. Her purchase of a huge interest in Craigslist resulted in a botched takeover attempt and willful ignorance of the service's role as the principal purveyor of prostitution in America. Her China acquisitions went very badly. Contrary to her rhetoric, she reveled in corporate perks and private jets. Her tenure on the board of Goldman Sachs was brief, cut short by her settlement of charges that she benefited repeatedly from inside information on stock dealings. And many eBay sellers, the people who actually make eBay work, are very disgruntled with her practices.

This ad, seen so far only on the Internet, presents a different view of billionaire Meg Whitman's record.

There were problems before eBay, too, in her brief management of the floral delivery service FTD and in the out-sourcing of jobs to very low-paid foreign labor. However, voters don't know any of this yet.

** The Pete Wilson Factor. Whitman's campaign is chaired by former Governor and Senator Pete Wilson. After winning a narrow election victory and seeing his popularity decline, Wilson sponsored an anti-welfare initiative. He then rode the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 to re-election in 1994. A year later, while Wilson tried to run for president, it emerged that he had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper. Not long after, he sponsored the disastrous electric power deregulation scheme that led to widespread market manipulation, blackouts, and the enrichment of Enron and other corporate wrongdoers. He also cut the car tax, which successor Gray Davis later had to raise to balance the budget, infuriating the state's drivers. Whitman calls him California's greatest governor.

** The Steve Poizner Factor. Whitman still has to get through the Republican primary. Though she has a huge lead over her rival, super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, it's not based on much more than expensively purchased name ID. Her ads have been running for many months. Now Poizner is finally advertising in earnest.

He's a one-time moderate Republican and favorite of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who broke with the governor and is now running even further to the right than Whitman. Right now, he's attacking her for her past support of comprehensive immigration reform a la the old position advocated by John McCain and Ted Kennedy in their late bill. In conservative terms, it's called amnesty, and Whitman has moved to the right to try to blunt his attack.

Poizner can gain traction in the primary with this and other rightward moves. But if he wants to win, he has to take Whitman down on character and competence.

Despite her big lead, Whitman is obviously worried. She started negative TV ads against him before he went on the air, and is spending big money on direct mail attacking him, too.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California's landmark climate change program into law on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in 2006. His would-be Republican successors want to do away with the program.

** The Environmental Factor. Like Poizner, Whitman is decrying environmental regulation. She's claimed that regulations in general cost California four million jobs, a fantastical figure. But she wants to be seen as semi-green, or else she can't possibly win in California. So she says now that she opposes offshore oil drilling. Unfortunately for her, she was for it until a few weeks ago.

Whitman also wants to do away with California's landmark climate change program, AB 32. She hasn't endorsed a proposed initiative, funded principally in signature gathering by Texas oil companies, but a prominent lobbyist featured in one of her ads says she will.

** The Collapsing California Press Corps Factor. In the face of this onslaught of paid advertising lies ... California's much diminished press corps. Its ranks have been seriously thinned by corporate downsizing and the ongoing devolution of conventional journalism. It's prone to regular manipulation by consultants, who operate from a much higher level of information and hand out "scoops," and focused mainly on day-to-day surface happenings.

It's gotten so bad that there are only a few left who were involved with the 2003 California recall election, merely one of the most famous elections ever and only six-and-a-half years ago.

So you have a reporter covering John McCain who didn't know what the Tet Offensive was. A reporter who described Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign as socially moderate. And a whole raft of folks who reported repeatedly that Bill Clinton was going to galvanize San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's campaign into a mighty force to take on Jerry Brown in the Democratic primary.

Lacking context, resources, aggressiveness, and reach, it's a mere shadow of what it once was, and it was never great. Even in 2002, when it was far stronger than it is now, it usually let Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon evade fundamental questions about his policy views.

Jerry Brown officially announced his candidacy for Governor of California last month, emphasizing that he brings "an insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind."

** The Long and Winding Road Factor. If ever there was a political figure who brought to mind the title of the Beatles' classic, "The Long and Winding Road," it's Jerry Brown. An intellectual provocateur by nature, Jerry Brown has played a myriad of roles and offered a myriad of positions.

Ever fascinated by the new computer and biological technologies he helped foster in his first go-round as California's youngest elected governor, in which shifting computing paradigms and recombinant DNA played the leading edge of the change, Brown has always been fascinated by what I call recombinant ideologies.

There is a throughline to Brown's story. But, ever contemporary in that he focuses on the now, he resists imposing his own narrative on his own story. Because, you see, that would define it.

Which makes him intriguing. But is also a vulnerability, in that opponents can seize on selected aspects of his voluminous record and spin it out. Whitman is already test marketing her attack slogan against Jerry Brown: "Way Too Liberal For Way Too Long." That's something that many, especially on the left, would dispute.

** The Flip Flop Factor. In the last few weeks and months, Whitman has changed her positions on a host of issues. Offshore oil drilling, comprehensive immigration reform, her pledge to release tax returns (her foundation uses offshore havens in the Caribbean) has flopped back and forth like an old door in a windstorm, prison building, and environmental regulation. Last year, she said she had a plan to balance the budget. Now she won't say what it is.

In a very short time she's practically caught Brown in this department.

** The Dismissed Arnold Team/Corporate Lobbyist Domination Factor. Consultant/lobbyist Mike Murphy showed up late to the party for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 but was a valuable part of the ensemble that directed a landslide victory. (His role in Schwarzenegger's election was inflated by the Los Angeles Times, which latched on to him as a source since it had no access to Schwarzenegger.)

After the election, Murphy convinced Schwarzenegger to make him his chief political strategist. Much chaos and embarrassment ensued over the next two years. Schwarzenegger finally dismissed him. Now he's Whitman's chief strategist.

Murphy and other colleagues in the Whitman effort embarrassed Schwarzenegger with their blatant influence peddling tactics, using Schwarzenegger's picture as a logo on their pitches for corporate clients.

Whitman, who is even less experienced in politics than Schwarzenegger was when he first ran, is even more dependent on a coterie of high-priced lobbyists and consultants directing her every move. She even featured a lobbyist in one of her radio ads, Jon Coupal of the anti-tax lobby called the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

It's a very big race with very big national implications. If she's the Republican nominee, Whitman will spend more money than any non-presidential candidate in American history. It's an audacious move by corporate conservative Republicans associated with Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney to snatch the California governorship and place it in the hands of a staunch opponent of Barack Obama. (Schwarzenegger has become a big ally of Obama.)

There is much to watch and much to consider with this race.

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