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California Governor’s Race: a Hot Campaign Sans Obama, Tea Party

In the troubled and debt-ridden state of California, two strong, well-known candidates are vying for the dubious honor of becoming the next governor. But something is missing in this extremely political year.

Republican Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, and Democrat Jerry Brown, former governor and the state attorney general, are battling in an increasingly contentious and expensive race in the nation’s largest state. Producer Joanne Elgart Jennings and I profile that race in a segment on Friday’s NewsHour. The contest has all the trappings of a classic political showdown: nasty commercials, big fund-raising, union and business involvement, a major financial crisis and a scandal or two. Except it’s out of step with many of the other crucial races around the country.

What’s missing, surprisingly, are President Obama and the tea party. President Obama’s policies (or what Republicans like to think of as his policies) including the stimulus package, the new health care law and the increase in the federal deficit, have not become major issues in the campaign, as they have elsewhere, though they get mentioned.

Tea party groups have been active in California — especially in the Republican primary campaigns for U.S. Senate and governor. But California Democrats enjoy a 14 percent edge in registration, and so Meg Whitman, who has accepted tea party endorsements, doesn’t want to get too close to groups on the right in the general election. She and Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina have declined to appear with Sarah Palin at an event next week in Southern California.

Whitman spoke with us about her tea party support and approach to fiscal responsibility:

Whitman needs independent and Democratic voters to overcome that registration edge. It is unlikely that very conservative voters will vote for Jerry Brown, but a Republican concern is that they might stay home. So Whitman can’t completely ignore the Tea Party, which may be why she took a long time to come out against Proposition 23, an oil-company-backed measure that would gut California’s revolutionary clean air law. Tea Party activists lobbied her hard not to oppose Prop. 23.

So what are Brown and Whitman arguing about? No. 1: about each other. Whitman says Brown is a career politician (which he can’t deny), beholden to public employee labor unions, who failed as governor and as mayor of Oakland, and is past his prime. He’s 72.

Brown says Whitman is relying on business experience that isn’t relevant to running this troubled state, where making a profit is not the point. He claims he’s got great government experience that will help him solve the horrendous financial crisis and the legislative deadlocks that have stymied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he accuses Whitman of trying to buy the election, by spending $119 million of her own money so far.

Brown spoke with us about fiscal discipline and running against Whitman’s deep pockets:

Many political analysts are skeptical that either will be able to solve the state’s problems. A new Field Poll shows that voters are extremely pessimistic that the state’s economy will improve in 2011.

Another major issue in the campaign is jobs; California has an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent. Brown says green is the way to go, and he’s promoting solar and other forms of clean energy. That, he says, will stimulate growth and provide employment. Whitman says her real world experience is in job creation. President Obama’s fiscal policies don’t seem to get much play in this debate — at least in California, which has the 8th-largest economy in the world.

And a further point of disagreement is immigration. Focus on that intensified last week when it was revealed that Whitman — who has advocated tough enforcement of immigration laws — employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years. While the tea party has been active in the immigration debate, it appears that this dust-up is fairly specific. Brown accuses Whitman of hypocrisy; Whitman accuses Brown of exploiting the issue for political gain. Quite possibly, the whole dust-up could ease over the next month.

Brown had a campaign crisis of his own Friday when the Los Angeles Times released audio of a Brown aide referring to Whitman as a “whore,” accusing her of cutting a deal with police unions, exempting them from her proposed pensions reforms. Whitman’s campaign called the word an insult to women. Brown’s campaign apologized.

So California’s race for governor is interesting, hard-fought and ultimately important. California’s problems are so pervasive, and how to attack them (or if they can be attacked) is crucial, not just to the state’s well-being, but to the nation’s. While the personal duel and the high campaign costs may overshadow the budget issues, the rhetoric about Obama and the tea party that pervades so many races in other states, seems to be overshadowed itself by the concern over the state’s economic future.

Independent polls released this week show Brown with a 4 or 5 point lead over Whitman.

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