In her spend-whatever-it-takes bid to jump from being a billionaire ex-CEO to the governorship of California, Republican Meg Whitman presents herself and her ideas in very simple, straightforward terms. The reality behind the facade, as we see from her attempts to avoid a primary contest and duck debates and the press, as well as her false claim about herself in her introductory TV ad, is different.
Last week it emerged that Whitman, whose only claim to fame in public affairs is her role as national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign, had engaged in a heavy-handed and wildly unsuccessful project to force her super-rich Republican rival, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, from the race. I've since confirmed that Whitman was out to clear the Republican primary field entirely, having engaged with greater success in inducing former Silicon Valley Congressman Tom Campbell to withdraw from the race for governor and enter the race for Senator Barbara Boxer's seat.
While Whitman's operatives employed coercion in their backfiring bid to get Poizner out of the race, they employed persuasion to remove Campbell from the equation. While consultant Mike Murphy played the heavy with Poizner, several sources say that another former consigliere for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bob White, the longtime chief of staff to former Governor and Senator Pete Wilson who now heads a powerful corporate consulting firm in the state capital, played the lead role for Whitman on the Campbell project. Wilson is Whitman's campaign chair.
In December, according to well-informed sources, Whitman operatives began trying to influence people in the orbit around Schwarzenegger to persuade Campbell to switch out of the governor's race and into the Senate race. Campbell, whose varied career has included stints as a Stanford law professor and head of the UC Berkeley business school, had been the state finance director in the Schwarzenegger Administration.
The blandishments for Campbell included the promise of new backing and help with fundraising.
Campbell, though running relatively well in the polls for governor -- and probably the most dangerous candidate for presumptive Democratic nominee Jerry Brown in a debate -- had raised barely a million dollars. His only realistic hope of winning the Republican gubernatorial primary was to slide through if Whitman and Poizner savaged one another.
In the Senate primary, he could start off in the lead with residual name ID from two earlier Senate runs. There he would face only one rich candidate, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and far right Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
Campbell listened to this and began seriously mulling the prospect of switching races. He did just that last month.
And when he made the move, he had newfound support.
George Shultz, secretary of state in the Reagan Administration and secretary of the treasury in the Nixon Administration, was suddenly Campbell's new campaign chair. Shultz put aside his differences with Campbell on abortion, gay rights, and the Middle East (Campbell is far less pro-Israel) in making the move.
Campbell picked up a fundraiser, too. Kristin Hueter, a top Whitman fundraiser, made the move to the new Team Campbell. Hueter had previously worked for Schwarzenegger.
When I reached him, Bob White acknowledged that he was involved in the effort to get Campbell to switch from the governor's race to the Senate race. But he said that his role wasn't as central as other sources said it was.
White had been very involved in bringing former Secretary of State Shultz, now ensconced at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, into the Schwarzenegger orbit when the action movie superstar mounted his swiftly jury-rigged campaign for governor in the 2003 California recall election.
White and his old boss, former Governor Wilson, who like Shultz is a Hoover Institution fellow, played a major role in bringing Shultz into one of the seminal events of Schwarzenegger's career, his ballyhooed economic "summit" at an LA airport hotel. Schwarzenegger already had his longtime friend, Democrat Warren Buffett, on board, but needed a big name Republican. Shultz and Buffett co-chaired Schwarzenegger's economic task force meeting behind closed doors, then played good-natured sidekicks on stage after at Schwarzenegger's massively attended press conference, allowing themselves to be publicly dominated by the Hollywood showman. (That was the event at which Schwarzenegger chastised his longtime friend Buffett for musing in the Wall Street Journal that California's Prop 13 needed to be changed, telling him next time that happened he'd have to do 500 sit-ups.)
As a congressman, Campbell was an ally of then Senator Pete Wilson. As a state senator following his first race for the U.S. Senate in 1992, he was an ally of then Governor Pete Wilson. And, naturally, of Wilson chief of staff White.
Now, the thing about clearing the primary field is, if you're going to clear the field, clear the field. That's what Jerry Brown did on the Democratic side last year, with no public muss or fuss whatsoever. (Aside from sour grapes carping later from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's chief strategist Garry South, who was paid more money than Brown spent on his entire campaign.) Brown, a combative sort, doesn't shy from the back-and-forth. Sometimes he's a little too into that. He cleared the primary field to save money for the general election against one of the two super-rich Republicans.
Whitman doesn't have to save money; she has more than enough for any occasion. So what's her concern, other than a desire to avoid the fray?
Whitman's ability to get Campbell out of the race leaves Poizner free to fire away at her with his big warchest. Before he had to worry that attacks would backfire on him and drive voters to Campbell as a nicer alternative. Now he's not constrained.
Whitman's moves also point up how reliant the billionaire political novice is on highly paid consultants and lobbyists.
Murphy, who was fired by Schwarzenegger after his stewardship of a 2005 special elections agenda proved disastrous and his lobbying embarrassed the governor, took on the assignment of ousting Poizner in a rather odd way. A way which a knowledgeable figure, which Whitman is not, would have averted.
We learned a week ago, when Poizner held his outraged (and backfiring) press conference calling for an FBI investigation, that Murphy sent an e-mail to a top Poizner hand foolishly promising a Senate nomination in 2012 against Dianne Feinstein if Poizner got out of the race and threatening destruction in the form of a $40 million advertising campaign if he did not.
Since then I've learned that the e-mail came about after Murphy's failed attempts to hold serious discussions on the phone with Poizner pollster Jan van Lohuizen and media consultant Stuart Stevens. Murphy volunteered to call them, saying he knows them well through his Washington connections and, in van Lohuizen's case, through former Schwarzenegger days.
But if Meg Whitman knew what was going on, she would know that the consultants Murphy said he could handle actually can't stand the guy.
While these Whitman machinations played out in somewhat backfiring fashion, another Whitman backfire occurred.
After months of non-stop radio ads, Whitman put out her first TV ad of the campaign. But the only fact in it, her claim of having lived in California for 30 years, was very wrong.
In her introductory TV ad, released to the media on Thursday, Whitman said she has lived in California for 30 years.
As that was obviously impossible for the East Coast born, raised, and educated billionaire -- unless she's older than she says -- she changed the TV ad on Friday to say that she's lived in California for "many years."
So how long has she lived in California?
In a getting-to-know-you softball interview, Stahl asked Whitman -- who had just become national co-chair of the John McCain for President campaign -- what she and her husband, Dr. Griff Harsh IV, like to do for fun.
We actually really like to hike. And it's something that we do together, and locally. One of the great things about living in California is the state parks, all up and down the coast. So we do a fair amount of hiking together. This was a fun thing we did about a month ago. We went down to see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo. I have lived in California for nearly 20 years and I've never been to see the elephant seals. And we had a ball. We drove to Half Moon Bay, drove down the coast, had a picnic lunch, went to see the elephant seals, on the most spectacular California day that you have ever seen. And then took off to a hike in the redwoods that's just north of ... or just a little bit south of Half Moon Bay, and did about a 10-mile hike, which I was dying at the end of.
One wonders how Whitman got from having lived in California for less than 20 years -- when talking with Leslie Stahl as she accepted the national co-chairmanship of the 2008 Republican presidential campaign -- to having lived in California for 30 years in her much-rehearsed introductory TV ad for governor of California.
As for the ad itself, Whitman narrates it but barely appears in it. It focuses instead on generic footage and boilerplate language.
As I've reported, her campaign for the Republican nomination for governor of California is struggling with the reality that the candidate does not test well with focus groups.
Here is a transcript of the ad.
MW: "I will say the number one thing, I think, that faces California right now is actually a crisis of confidence. People are scared to death that California cannot be fixed.
The most important thing that the next governor of California has to do is actually deliver the goods. The professional politicians have been fighting in Sacramento for years and the state is in the worst shape that I've seen in the thirty years that I have lived in California.
We can turn California around. I think, actually, I can make a difference. I have run large organizations, I know how to create jobs, I know how to focus, I know how to balance a budget and I think a business perspective is a bit of what California needs right now.
The things that I think we need to focus on are first, creating and keeping jobs in California. Second is cutting government spending and third is fixing our education system.
We need to have California be what it once was and I think we can do it. Let's say what we mean, mean what we say and let's get it done."
The TV ad's text simply repeats what her radio ads say. By my trusty Seamaster, Whitman is on screen for 13 of the ad's 60 seconds, for no more than four seconds at a time, never looking into the camera.
Unlike most super-rich candidates for office (and in California, they usually fail), Whitman has barely been involved in public affairs. She never wrote even an op-ed piece to express her hopes and concerns for California before deciding to run for governor.
Her only real involvement has been in Republican presidential campaigns. She was a national finance co-chair for her mentor Mitt Romney before becoming national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign. Which has nothing to do with being governor of California.
Whitman's extraordinarily gossamer connection to California public affairs is highlighted by her disappearing bona fides.
In her much-rehearsed debut speech at the California Republican Party convention last February, she made false statements about her voting history. In reality, she has voted infrequently.
In her much-rehearsed debut TV ad, she made a false claim about how long she has lived in California.
These are surface basics, easy stuff. If Whitman can't get even those things straight, one wonders what lies beneath the facade.