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The Whitman-Poizner Slugfest Gets Serious

When a SUSA poll came out earlier this month showing that California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had suddenly lost nearly all of a once-enormous lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, it was a bit hard to believe. But now the respected Public Policy Institute of California has released a new survey confirming a Poizner surge, and it looks like the increasingly negative and incredibly expensive slugfest between the two has become a real contest.

The title of PPIC’s press release says it all: “Stunning Drop in Whitman’s Support Transforms GOP Race For Governor.” The last PPIC poll in March had eMeg leading Poizner by a 61-11 margin, and she appeared to be in the process of burying him once and for all in an avalanche of attack ads. Now her lead is down to nine points, at 38-29, and perhaps reflecting the highly negative tone of the contest, the undecided vote has gone up from 25% in March to 31% now.

What’s happened to Whitman’s lead? Well, for one thing, Poizner, who’s tried to position himself as the “true conservative” in the race, has been fighting back with his own very deep-pocketed ad campaign (total spending so far: Whitman, $68 million, Poizner $24 million. Yikes!). And he seems to have struck paydirt with attacks on Whitman’s highly lucrative association with Goldman Sachs (she made many millions while on the firm’s board through a controversial procedure called “spinning” that smacks of insider trading). Indeed, the California Democratic Party chipped in with its own ad savaging Whitman on this score.

In addition, Poizner’s taken advantage of the spotlight on immigration created by the Arizona furor, and has been pounding Whitman for refusing to endorse the Arizona law (all three GOP candidates in the U.S. Senate race have joined Poizner in supporting Arizona’s action). Most recently, he’s run an effective ad blasting the former eBay CEO for failing to vote for 28 years. It’s all adding up. And Whitman’s own most recent ad, a very defensive number that dwells heavily on her determination to fight illegal immigration and her dislike of Barbara Boxer, seems to show that Poizner has drawn blood.

You probably have to live in California to understand just how massive a presence the Whitman-Poizner battle has assumed on the airwaves, and how negative and personal it’s become, with both candidates hurling attacks and rather hilariously calling each other “liberal.” As veteran Democratic operative Bill Carrick recently joked at the political news site Calbuzz: “I’ve had the alarming revelation that we have two dangerous left-wingers running in the Republican primary for governor…. I can barely sleep at night.”

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown is waiting in the wings and raising money. And in every recent poll, he’s moved ahead of both Republican candidates in general election trial heats. PPIC shows him leading Whitman 42-37 (and Poizner 45-32), after trailing her 39-44 in its March survey. It’s unclear whether the recent GOP preoccupation with immigration is having an impact on the Latino vote, though everyone remembers the fallout that afflicted California Republicans the last time this issue dominated their message (in 1994, when Pete Wilson campaigned on Proposition 187, winning the battle but losing the war). Whitman is definitely walking a tightrope on that issue, calling most recently for National Guard troops to patrol the border (not exactly legal, but it sounds good), and running a radio ad in which her campaign chairman–yes, Pete Wilson himself–vouches for her toughness on immigration.

With less than three weeks to go before the June 8 primary, it’s unclear whether Poizner can catch Whitman, whose pockets may be a bit deeper (she’s pledged to spend as much as $150 million of her personal fortune to win the governorship). But the bigger question may be about the political condition of the ultimate nominee after this primary. And if it’s Whitman, you do have to wonder if there’s a point where over-exposure through months and months of saturation television ads (which she began during the Winter Olympics) begins to take a toll among weary viewers. When watching this campaign, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Al Checchi, the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who broke every spending record on negative ads that eventually backfired. It’s a scenario that Meg Whitman is in danger of repeating.