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Spending Spree Marks Republican California Governor’s Primary

May 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tensions mount in California's multi-million dollar Republican primary race for California governor, where over $90 million has already been spent on campaigns. Gwen Ifill reports on the contentious and expensive contest.

JIM LEHRER: The spending bonanza that is the California governor’s race. Over $90 million has been spent so far, and that’s just on the Republican primary.

Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: As they compete for the chance to be the next Republican governor of California, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner agree on at least two things. Neither wants to be labeled a liberal.

MEG WHITMAN, R, California gubernatorial candidate: There is only one liberal Republican on the stage tonight, and it is not me.

GWEN IFILL: And neither wants to be linked to the current and now deeply unpopular Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

NARRATOR: You like Arnold?

NARRATOR: You will love Meg Whitman.

GWEN IFILL: Both are digging deep into their own pockets to make the case that they alone can dig the Golden State out of a $19 billion hole. That is the size of the state’s deficit.

MEG WHITMAN: This isn’t fun and games anymore for California. We are in a really, really serious situation. And Californians really understand it. They understand the unemployment rate. They understand the $20 billion budget deficit.

STEVE POIZNER, R, California gubernatorial candidate: People ask me all the time, why on earth would you want to be governor when California is going through this meltdown? But it turns out this is the perfect time. Sometimes, it takes a real meltdown in order to galvanize voters to support a reform agenda.

GWEN IFILL: Poizner, 53, a former tech executive and currently the state insurance commissioner, has poured $24 million into his campaign so far.

STEVE POIZNER: I’m not a career politician, for sure. But I’m not a rookie either. I have this proven set of skills to really fix very difficult problems.

GWEN IFILL: And Whitman, also 53 years old, spent 10 years as CEO of the online auction company eBay. At last count, she had spent about $70 million of her own money.

MEG WHITMAN: I am not a political — a professional politician, as you know. I mean, I am the definition of an outsider. I have been in business for 30 years.

GWEN IFILL: But outsider status has its limits. Whitman has been endorsed by well-known national Republicans like Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney. Until recently, her nomination was considered a sure thing.

NARRATOR: With Goldman Sachs, Whitman invested heavily…

GWEN IFILL: In the blizzard of advertising that has dominated this race…

NARRATOR: Whitman’s entire fortune is intertwined with Goldman Sachs.

GWEN IFILL: … Whitman’s reputation took its hit when Poizner highlighted her decade-old member on the board of tarnished Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs.

NARRATOR: Goldman executives donated over $100,000 to Whitman.

GWEN IFILL: The high-decibel ad war kicked into overdrive after the state of Arizona launched its own crackdown on illegal immigration. Poizner made it issue number one.

NARRATOR: Who has the courage and values to stand up to illegal immigration?

NARRATOR: Not liberal Meg Whitman. She supports Obama’s amnesty plan.

GWEN IFILL: Whitman, whose poll numbers immediately slipped, struck back.

NARRATOR: Behind in the polls, Steve Poizner has decided to stop telling the truth. Newspapers call his attack ad misleading and simply false.

Steve Poizner — desperate, dishonest, and way more liberal than he says he is.

GWEN IFILL: Whitman advisers say she is bouncing back, but neither side is taking anything for granted during the primary campaign’s final two weeks.

Mark DiCamillo has spent 30 years following issues and candidates for California’s Field Poll.

MARK DICAMILLO, California Field Poll: National issues have really had an impact, I think, on the California governor’s race. First, the kind of focus on Wall Street and Goldman Sachs, that didn’t play well. But then the Arizona immigration law hit, and that made it a big national issue. And I think, especially in a Republican primary here in California, that issue is probably the most potent issue in this campaign.

STEVE POIZNER: There is a big debate going on right now.

GWEN IFILL: Poizner says he would revive Proposition 187, an anti-immigration initiative overturned by the courts in 1998, telling his audiences the Arizona law simply makes it illegal to be illegal.

STEVE POIZNER: And I’m going to be the truth-teller in this campaign. As governor, I’m going to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the state of California.

STEVE POIZNER: Let me just be clear about Arizona. I totally support what they are doing. Good for the people of the state of Arizona.

GWEN IFILL: Whitman has hesitated to embrace Arizona’s approach.

MEG WHITMAN: I have tremendous empathy for the people of Arizona. I understand that they rose up, in many ways, to — because of the abject failure of the federal government to secure the border. But I have a better plan for California. We have to secure the border. Then, we have got to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, even in the heat of a bitter campaign, there is some agreement. Both Republicans say they would deploy the California National Guard to patrol the state’s border with Mexico. Earlier this week, President Obama dispatched 1,200 troops to the border to boost security.

Watching all of this expensive Republican wrangling from the sidelines is the Democrat one of them is likely to face, 72-year-old State Attorney General Jerry Brown. He was once mayor of Oakland, and he was once governor. In fact, in 1974, when he was elected, he was the state’s youngest governor ever. If he were to win this fall, he would be its oldest.

WOMAN: Hey, I voted for Jerry the first time.

GWEN IFILL: Brown’s political longevity may also be a plus in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2008.

MARK DICAMILLO: Most commentators out here, when they are looking at this Republican bash, they’re calling it another murder-suicide, and the winner is the person who is not in the fight. And, in this case, it’s Jerry Brown.

GWEN IFILL: But Brown’s previous stint as governor ended in 1982, long before many of the voters he’s now targeting were born. To introduce himself to those younger voters, he’s targeting college campuses.

JERRY BROWN, D, California gubernatorial candidate: The mist is starting to lift. I hope it — the fog of the campaign begins to lift, too, because, when I watch those other candidates, they have spent $100 million already. What couldn’t we have done with $100 million on this campus?

JERRY BROWN: Really, a bunch of stuff. You know, they buy those commercials, and they point, and that one’s a liberal, and that one’s somebody else. It is completely, intellectually embarrassing.

GWEN IFILL: For his older, more well-heeled audiences, like the Democrats at this Hollywood fund-raiser last week, Brown makes an old-timer’s pitch.

JERRY BROWN: At this stage of my life, I’m not trying to prove anything. I am — you know, I have seen it before. I know what it’s like. I once said — and I shouldn’t say this, but I once said coming out of a regents meeting, being governor is a real pain in the ass.

JERRY BROWN: I said that, and it was quoted in the paper. Now, you can’t put that on public television.

JERRY BROWN: And I said it out of a certain amount of frustration. And now the frustration is going to be a lot greater. But I also have a lot more patience and a lot more understanding. And I think I’m coming back to the job with the kind of a perspective and a kind of insight that certainly I didn’t have when I first started.

GWEN IFILL: In some respects, the choices are unusually clear for California voters this year.

PEYMAN RATSCHI, supporter of Meg Whitman: She presses all the right buttons, workers comp, illegal immigration, and tax breaks.

DON SEBASTIANI, supporter of Steve Poizner: I think to be opposed to the Arizona law in a Republican primary in California now puts you out of stride with the majority of the Republican voters.

WOMAN: You know, we need immigration reform. We need something. What is happening right now is not working. So, we need to make it better. That’s my — I guess that’s my view.

GWEN IFILL: California ballots are already in the mail, and more than a third of the state’s voters are expected to make their decisions well before polls open June 8.