As the PPIC poll made clear last week, Steve Poizner, as of the middle of May, got himself within striking distance of Meg Whitman. But unless he makes all the right moves in the next week or so, he’s toast. In fact, it may already be too late for The Commish: he may have missed his chance to put his puny boot on eMeg’s wattle.
Whitman, the former eBay CEO, is in part a victim of her own success. So thoroughly had she dominated the airwaves and the GOP contest for so long, that only her message was out there, sending her to an unsustainable 61-11% lead over Poizner, the Insurance Commissioner.
So when Poizner FINALLY put some money behind attacking eMeg for her connections to Goldman Sachs, her stand on immigration, her voting record and more, he inevitably brought her down to Earth. In the process, he moved up against her in most polls. Private surveys Calbuzz trusts showed the race had narrowed to about 6-8 points in the first week of May.
It looked as if Poizner might be moving in for the kill. We hear pollsters were finding that he’d driven her unfavorable rating WAY up. GOP primary voters were looking around for somewhere to go. They didn’t like her much because she was tied to Goldman, she was wishy-washy on immigration and she looked kinda arrogant and out of touch. Not like them.
But Poizner a) didn’t sustain the character/ideology attacks and b) didn’t give voters any sense of what he would do, how he would lead or why they should switch to him. After months of singing, “Just you wait Mrs. Whitman, just you wait,” Poizner’s much-anticipated assault was kinda like him: not quite forceful enough.
While we’re awaiting the final pre-primary surveys from Field and the L.A. Times, those private pollsters say now that Poizner’s failure to make a case for himself has allowed those voters whom he shook lose from Whitman to begin to drift back to her in the past week.
Looking back over all of Poizner’s advertising since late March, there are only a few ads in which he gives voters any sense of who he is and what he would do as governor. His negatives on her – on immigration amnesty, support for Barbara Boxer, representing a third term for Arnold Schwarzenegger, supporting tax-payer funded abortion, her voting record, her ties to Goldman Sachs and opposition to Arizona’s immigration law – combined to have an effect.
But why should anyone vote for Poizner? If TV viewers were still listening after he got done attacking Whitman, they might have caught the briefest mention of him saying he’ll cut taxes, cut spending, support Arizona’s approach to illegal immigration and deny benefits to illegal immigrants and oppose taxpayer funded abortion. The strongest pro-argument was in an ad featuring U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican conservative icon, who said it wasn’t even a close call – Poizner is the only conservative in the race. But that ad was up for just two weeks in late April and early May.
To have any hope of winning this race, Poizner will have to:
1. Put Goldman Sachs and Whitman’s voting record into one ad that argues that eMeg is nothing more than a Wall Street predator who couldn’t even bother to participate in California politics until she decided to buy the governorship with her ill-gotten lucre.
2. Put McClintock back on the air telling viewers why he’s for Poizner and have Poizner lay out three or four things he’ll do as governor: cut taxes and spending in order to preserve schools and law enforcement; be fair to legal immigrants and tough on illegals, protect the environment but stop job-killing red tape. Or whatever: it’s not our platform; it’s his.
The point is make the case to voters in the GOP primary that not only should they reject Whitman, they should be FOR him because he knows what he’s doing and has a plan to govern California. Or whatever honest and authentic upside message resonates.
The Whitman campaign is spinning furiously that Poizner is falling further behind every day and that he’s not even competing in the Bay Area market he recently suggested was a key to winning.
Poizner’s people insist their guy is in it to win it – that only in a race where one candidate has blown through something like $80 million could it be a question whether a guy who’s in for $24 million is really serious.
Their argument, from chief strategist Stuart Stevens: This has turned into a race about illegal immigration, amnesty and the Arizona immigration law. And Whitman is on the wrong side from Republican primary voters. Big broad strokes. The “Whitman/Obama amnesty plan,” one ad calls it.
“The question is: who’s more conservative?” Stevens asks. Whitman, who started out with a three-point message, he says, now is “boiling the ocean” — exactly what she said she would never do. And remember, Poizner keeps noting, illegal immigration was never one of eMeg’s top three issues.
“Those who say that Steve hasn’t given voters a reason to be for him probably don’t care much about illegal immigration,” Stevens says. The Poizner ad running that goes after Mexican President Felipe Calderon suggests where Poizner will go in the coming days: they’re going to attack Mexico and argue that Whitman and Calderon are two peas in a pod.
They believe they can win by arguing that Poizner is the guy to vote FOR because he’s the only Republican running who primary voters agree with on immigration and amnesty. We’re skeptical — in part because, in the latest PPIC poll, immigration came in third among Republicans asked to name the most important issue facing Californians (immigration was at 14%, behind jobs and economy at 42% and the state budget and taxes at 24%).
It is clear, however, that Team Steve has driven the Whitman juggernaut off its fundamental three-point message. So we’re hanging on for the ride.