Meg Whitman is an arrogant extortionst. Steve Poizner is a wimpy nutcase. And Jerry Brown is laughing his ass off.
So goes the meme of the week.
For those who got drunk watching the Pro Bowl and missed Monday: The first, deliciously nasty exchange of the campaign for the Republican nomination for governor erupted when Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner asked the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and California Attorney General Brown – not to mention God, the CIA and the BBC – to investigate rival and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman for possibly criminal actions. Citing an email from eMeg consultant Mike Murphy to Poizner pollster Jan van Lohuizen, the Commish insisted Whitman had countenanced an illegal effort to force him out of the race.
Whitman’s campaign, in Murphy’s voice, immediately fired back, calling into question Poizner’s “mental condition” and saying he’d blown out of all proportion a back channel effort to suggest it was in everyone’s interest for him to quit a race he is trailing badly. For those seeking details, there’s no lack of blow-by-blow event coverage, with the SacBee’s Torey Van Oot leading the pack.
As a legal matter, Poizner’s demand for eMeg and Murphy to be prosecuted for political extortion seems implausible. Here’s a simple test: If Murphy had made those comments to a reporter who had published them, could he be charged with extortion? Not hardly. As a political matter, however, the exchange was important for three key reasons:
1. Tactics: In aggressively going after Whitman, Poizner was simply following the Calbuzz Third Principle of Campaigns: When you’re behind, pick a fight.
Trailing badly in the polls and in fund-raising, The Commish made a play to shake up the dynamic of the race before it settled, while jump starting his own languishing campaign. As a side benefit, he also stepped on the more important story of the day, as newly filed campaign finance reports not only show Whitman with a big advantage over him in money in the bank — $30-to-19 million -– but also having out-raised her rival — $10-to-2 million -– in 2009 contributions from people not named Whitman or Poizner.
Team Whitman for their part handled the counter-attack just right. Murphy’s comment about Poizner’s mental health carried the right tone of bemused dismissiveness, and put Commish in the position of debating eMeg’s consultant, an inferior, instead of the principal herself.
Winner: Poizner. He introduced the notion of Meg’s sleaziness into the political bloodstream and, by forcing her campaign to respond, gained in his effort to put himself on equal footing with the front-runner.
2. Message: Poizner’s action laid down a free media foundation for what is likely to become a central attack line when he goes on the air: That Her Megness is an arrogant and entitled Leona Helmsley-type CEO who is trying to buy California’s highest office without lowering herself to such matters as voting, meeting with California political reporters or debating an opponent.
The Whitman response, by contrast, reflects an effort to portray Poizner as a nerdy weenie, lacking the stature needed to be governor. In condescending to Poizner, Murphy — known for his sometimes over-the-top swashbuckling — portrays him as weak and ineffectual, a little boy who gets in a fight on the playground and runs to the teacher yelling, “She hit me.”
Winner: Tie. Both campaigns succeeded in sending messages to the public about what they perceive as major weaknesses in their opponent’s personae.
3. Consultants: Insiders say that Murphy and Stuart Stevens, Poizner’s chief consultant, don’t much like each other, and have feuded for years. At one point, Murphy circulated a video to other GOP consultants showing spots prepared by the two, and accusing Stevens of ripping him off. The early attack by Poizner, coupled with the bad blood between the consultants, means the primary race could become one of the roughest in history.
Winner: Jerry Brown (who doesn’t have consultants).
But Murphy comes out okay, too. With a strong counter-punch, not to mention Murphy’s email language, eMeg has signaled she will, in fact, do whatever is needed to “tear up” her rival. At a time when Poizner has yet to establish a positive image with the public — or any image, for that matter — getting locked into a brawl early on is a big hurt. Especially when it’s the candidate versus the consultant. (This is one of our friend Garry South’s favorite gambits — getting the opposing candidate into a pissing match.)
Warning to Murph: It was a bonehead move to say — in writing — that “we could unite entire party behind Steve right now to build a serious race against Dianne F [Feinstein] in 2012. Could be a strong GOP year and DiFi will be 78 or 79 years old.” We suspect Lady Di will not be amused.
As a political matter, the only clear beneficiary of the sudden exchange appeared to be Brown, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, who’s quietly raising money for the general election and hoping to stay above the fray while the two, extremely wealthy GOP contenders launch mutual, brutal attacks financed by their personal fortunes.
Brown is so far behind his GOP opponents — especially Whitman — in terms of financial resources, that his fervent hope in the next few months is that the Republican rivals become enmeshed in exactly the kind of battle Murphy predicted in his “extortion” email.