Is billionaire Meg Whitman having fun yet? She's certainly had a careening week in her once seeming juggernaut of a bid to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.
In any car race, the worst moment is not when the trailing car pulls up in the rear view mirror, it's when you can no longer see it in the rear view mirror. That's because it's alongside.
I've been reporting for weeks on her steep slide in private polling on her Republican primary race against super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who was once dismissed by nearly all as a hapless speed bump in the race. That culminated here on the Huffington Post in "Meg Whitman's Titanic Campaign for Governor of California."
After a lot of denial of the truth by her chief strategist Mike Murphy and others in the well-paid Whitman camp, this week they had to face facts. This week began with a stark bit of reality.
At noon on Monday, on ABC's TV station in Los Angeles, a new poll by Survey USA was released. It had the race within the margin of error of the poll. Whitman 39%, Poizner 37%.
Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, this poll had the race at Whitman 49%, Poizner 27%. That was consistent with private polling I had reported the previous Friday, just prior to the California Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles, which kicked off a round-robin of reports of a closing GOP primary race. A Los Angeles Times reporter e-mailed me about my report; shortly thereafter an unsourced item appeared on a joint LA Times/Capitol Weekly web site.
In California, as I've been saying for a long while, it is now apparent to all that there is a real race underway for the Republican gubernatorial nomination between Whitman, once the overwhelming frontrunner, Poizner.
Poizner is using illegal immigration, what I call the alienation factor in the GOP race, to continue pressing his new advantage against Whitman. He began the week by going to the Mexican border with an LA congressman; he also launched a tough new ad contrasting his hardline position with Whitman. For her part, she tried to hit back with a radio ad featuring Latino bete noir Pete Wilson, the former governor who pushed the draconian Prop 187 to victory in 1994.
That was never part of her plan, as she hoped to appeal to Latino voters in a general election against Jerry Brown, despite not having hired Latino exectives as head of eBay.
Meanwhile, allies of Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party piled on Whitman with a tough new ad on her unethical Goldman Sachs ties.
Yet Whitman's campaign, once 50 points ahead of Steve Poizner, said publicly on Tuesday that it still had a "double-digit lead."
In reality, I learned privately that Whitman reached out to Madison Avenue as she considered how to reframe her candidacy and arrest Poizner's surge.
As of Wednesday, her existing campaign set-up had two relatively new TV ads. A positive ad which claims she is the "only fiscal conservative" in the race. And a brand new negative ad claiming that Poizner is "Just Another Sacramento Liberal Politician," with a kitchen sink litany of charges read by an anonymous narrator.
And won't Congressman Tom McClintock, Poizner's iconic conservative on-air validator, feel foolish when he learns that Poizner is really a big liberal?
For his part, Poizner put another $2.5 million into the pot late on Tuesday. I noted on my blog, New West Notes, that Whitman hadn't put more money in yet, but that she would have to if she wanted to win. Shattering all records, she had already personally contributed over $60 million to her primary race ($59 million is the official figure, not counting the big-spending "exploratory" period when she spent a small fortune on consultants and research.)
Poizner continued the ad featuring California conservative icon McClintock, which is very effective. And he had the new ad on illegal immigration, which, as discussed, is the principal issue which rocketed him into serious contention for the Republican nomination.
He took his tough GoldMeg Sachs ad off the air, at least for now. The California Democratic Party is running a GoldMeg Sachs TV spot.
Late on Wednesday, as I predicted she'd have to, Whitman added another $5 million to her bid. She's given three times as much as Poizner -- so far -- to her campaign, and raised another $13 million or so besides. Yet she was running out of money.
Poizner changed out his TV ad rotation on Thursday. His highly effective spot with conservative icon Tom McClintock preaching Poizner's bona fides and blasting Whitman as the next version of Arnold Schwarzenegger had done its work and was replaced in the rotation by a harsh new spot hitting Whitman for never voting in a 28-year period.
Is that right? I don't know. Whitman has been vague and given several conflicting explanations for her very scanty voting record. And the voting records themselves are shaky, at best. Essentially, Poizner is challenging her to disprove what his ad says. I bet then that Whitman would stick to having her flacks scream about it. And that's all they've done.
Also in the rotation was the new Poizner ad on illegal immigration, which is highly effective.
Those two ads were running in 50-50 rotation around the state.
What did Whitman have to counter?
She kept the relatively positive spot in which she claims to be "the only fiscal conservative" in the race. But out-pointing it 3 to 1 in the rotation was her newer ad saying Poizner is "Just Another Sacramento Liberal Politician."
Meanwhile, Poizner, who is ahead with Latino voters in some polling, presented a new Spanish language radio ad attacking her for rolling out ex-Governor Pete Wilson, the Latino bete noir, in her new radio ad.
And Whitman continued that roll-out with a new mailer featuring Wilson vouching for her own harsh new stance on illegal immigration. So much for her plans to appeal to Latino voters in the general election. Now she's only trying to make it that far.
On Friday, things changed dramatically for Whitman. With nothing so far from Madison Avenue -- and this certainly doesn't look like a Don Draper-style move -- she appears to have taken her advertising into her own hands.
Candidates sometimes do this sort of thing when they get very frustrated, and Whitman fancies herself a marketing expert. Which is not the same as a marketing executive, which is what she was in her long corporate career.
With polling showing the race neck and neck, Whitman came up with an unusual 60-second TV spot, which she rolled out on Friday. (I watched it the night before, as did, I've learned, in quite separate locations, Poizner and Brown.)
In this spot, she speaks to camera, quite defensively, beginning by noting that politics is a tough business (not a great lead sentence), saying she's not a Sacramento politician like Jerry Brown and Steve Poizner. She then said that she is working hard to defeat Senator Barbara Boxer (apropos of nothing other than Poizner's attacks, which the viewer is seeing elsewhere and not necessarily thinking abot when he or she sees this ad) and is dead set against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Oh, and she'll hold the line on spending and fight the evil unions.
It is, needless to say, a very defensive spot, responding throughout to attacks on her. She looks and sounds defensive, too. None of which is a good thing.
She's also created a problem for herself, in that a 60-second spot will be harder to clear onto the air through the stations. It probably won't really start running till next week. And it means that her big slice of the advertising pie has to be sliced differently for her own purposes, as stations sell time in 30-second increments.
This means that one of the other ads, and both of them are better than this, will go by the wayside, and that she will gain fewer impressions.
Frankly, the ad reads like something written by a non-professional writer, quite possibly Whitman herself.
And what is the Poizner crew doing?
They went on the air Friday for the first time in the San Francisco market, which they've largely ceded to their opponent till now, with the exception of a few spots on cable. (Take away Whitman's big lead in the San Francisco Bay Area and Poizner is well into the lead.) That is a new ad for that market, less incendiary than what is running elsewhere with regard to illegal immigration, which in this new ad is a component of the attack on Whitman rather than the totality of the spot.
And countering the billionaire's new 60-second spot, in which she claims that she's never been for "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, they are re-running, in a more limited way, an earlier ad which features Whitman saying the same thing on illegal immigration as President Barack Obama.
The other two ads I've written about -- the tough illegal immigration spot that began at the beginning of this week and the new ad saying she didn't vote for 28 years -- are running in heavy rotation in all non-San Francisco markets.
It's a fascinating contest.
Though that probably is not how Meg Whitman thinks of it.