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Gwen’s Take: The California Governor’s Race

I was strolling through the town square in the pretty, precious town of Mill Valley, California, last weekend, reporting on California’s gubernatorial race, when I realized I might have to change my mind about politics.

Only a few weeks ago, I told an audience in Tampa, Florida, that, when it comes to news value, their state is the gift that keeps on giving. (Think Elian Gonzales, Charlie Crist, the 2000 recount). Politics is never boring in the Sunshine State.

But then I landed in California to cover the upcoming gubernatorial primary and noticed two very familiar story lines. One was money. The Republican candidates are spending outlandish sums competing for the GOP nomination. We’re talking around $100 million — probably two-thirds of it coming from the personal bank account of former EBay CEO Meg Whitman.

The other storyline: Democrat Jerry Brown.

He’s now 72 years old, and it seems we have been covering his political career for generations — through a previous stint as governor, one as mayor of Oakland, another as state attorney general, plus more than one run for president.

Neither Whitman nor the other Republican, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, much likes to answer questions about how deeply they are digging into their personal bank accounts. The truth is each has blasted through previous spending records.

But when I asked Poizner how much he is willing to spend between now and the June 8 primary, he neatly turned the subject to Whitman.

“We have a full funded campaign,” he told me. “It’s about a 25 million dollar effort, and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Meg Whitman is spending.”

“It’s important for people to realize that kind of money has never been spent before in a Republican primary for governor or for most statewide races,” he added. “The most that has been spent for a Republican primary for governor in the history of our country is 20 million dollars.”

It’s also important to realize that Poizner is spending that kind of money too – at least $24 million so far.

Whitman, too, likes to change the subject when it comes to talking about her dwindling bank account. I asked her if she had established an upper limit on what she would spend to win. (I’d read the number is about $150 million, which seems quite plausible if she wins the nomination and continues into a general election campaign.)

“I want to spend what it requires to get our message out,” she told me. “We’re running a very strategic, smart campaign. And we’re using the internet, radio, television, all of our social networking tools are working very well for us. And we’ll continue running the smart campaign that we’ve run for the last year and a half for the next 5 months.”

Jerry Brown seems kind of delighted about all of this. California has seen other well-heeled statewide candidates rise and fall (Democrats Al Checchi and Jane Harman, Republican Michael Huffington). But while Poizner and Whitman blanket the airwaves with ads attacking each other, he has no real opposition to spend money on.

Plus, he has a key political asset no money can buy. After decades in public life, he has name recognition — a pretty bankable advantage, but one that can also cut both ways.

“I’m not the only one on the ballot,” he told a college audience last week. “Even though Obama’s name is not there, he’s really there too. Because whoever the Republican nominee is, they’re going to be fighting the President.”

But as the Republicans savage each other on the air — each essentially labeling the other a liar and a liberal — Brown is so far politically unscathed.

“Ever since I didn’t put anything on the air, I’ve been rising in the polls,” Brown told supporters at a Hollywood fundraiser. “There’s a famous Chinese strategist who wrote a book about 2,500 years ago on strategy. He said the key is to defeat your adversaries without fighting them. Now you think about that. I’m not going to explain that. Because they’re defeating themselves.”

See what I mean? Liars, liberals and Chinese strategists too. Come on, Florida, can you top that?

This entry is cross-posted on Washington Week’s website. Tune in on Friday.

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