There’s a great scene in “Rocky,” after underdog Sylvester Stallone has just hammered the arrogant heavyweight champion Apollo Creed with a couple of roundhouse lefts, and the champ’s corner man yells at him to stop preening and prancing around:
“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show,” says Creed’s trainer. “He thinks it’s a damn fight!”
The classic cinematic moment came to mind Wednesday, when Steve Poizner’s campaign for governor delivered a major blow against the mantle of inevitability that Republican primary rival Meg Whitman has worn for months:
After trailing eMeg by 40+ points as recently as a few weeks ago Team Steve trotted out a quartet of senior strategists for a conference call with political writers to proclaim that they’ve closed to within 10 points, with nearly five weeks to go before the June 8 election.
“The Meg Whitman campaign is one of these classic campaigns which is sort of somebody walking around with a paper bag full of water. It wasn’t going to leak, but once it went, it would go. And that process is very much underway,” said chief strategist Stuart Stevens.
That there is some substance behind their spin had already been demonstrated, when Whitman’s handlers – after learning about the upcoming Poizner press call — convened their own conference call, leapfrogging Poizner by 30 minutes. Pre-spin spin.
“Our polls have been tracking with the public polls and I would be very strong in suggesting take any internal poll spin 30-32 days out with a grain of salt and keep an eye on those public polls that aren’t paid for by an interested party,” said Whitman strategist Mike Murphy. “Still, I want to be very clear we have always expected this race to close, and I think we’ve been very direct in telling you guys that.”
Poizner, he said, has “spent about $14.5 million on negative advertising targeting Meg Whitman, most of it misleading and disingenuous, but it has served two purposes. One, it has confused Republican primary voters — and we’re going to get them unconfused– and second it’s made Steve Poizner fundamentally unelectable in the general election.”
The dueling spin sessions heightened the growing sense of immediacy and aggressive engagement in the GOP race, building on the hostile tone of Sunday’s Meg-Steve debate, and the recent multi-million dollar volleys of attack ads the contenders are launching against each other, during every popular TV show from “Lost” to “Dancing with the Stars.”
And speaking of movies, the several hour spin cycle played out kind of like “Rashomon” with both sides looking at the same events and developments and offering entirely different interpretations. Here’s a look at the highlights:
Polling – Poizner trotted out Neil Newhouse and Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies to offer what they said were the key findings of their latest three night tracking poll (May 2-4, 800 undefined “likely Republican primary voters”). According to Newhouse, in the middle of February – the “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” he called it – Poizner trailed Whitman 59-11%; now, he said, eMeg’s lead has been cut to 38-28%.
Both candidates now have negative impression ratings, he said, eMeg’s favorable-to-unfavorable at 25-49% and Poizner’s at 30-39%. “The more the voters see of Meg Whitman, the less they like her and the more they see of Steve Poizner the more they like him,” said Stevens.
Whitman’s Murphy did not actually dispute the ballpark numbers presented by Newhouse. “We are holding a strong lead but we’re running this campaign like we’re one point behind.” He said Whitman is a “lot closer” to holding 50% of the GOP vote than Poizner is and that Whitman’s lead is “a double-digit number.”
Message – Stevens said that Whitman’s message had been “muddled” – “they’re attacking Steve for not being conservative enough, but she’s never even said she’s a Republican” – and that Team eMeg had committed a blunder by coming out of the box very early with negative attacks on Poizner instead of laying down a positive track. He said the Whitman campaign “made a strategic error attacking Steve so early” with ads that ridiculed, belittled and made fun of Poizner. “Voters have reacted very negatively to that,” he said, “they’ve been oversold.”
Stevens refused to say what Poizner’s mix of negative to positive ads would be.
It’s clear that Poizner will be seeking to dash against one of Whitman’s strongest arguments: inevitability; “I think it is remarkable that Whitman has failed to really lock down this race with the amount of spending she’s done so far,” said Newhouse. “It makes you wonder whether that can be corrected by spending even more money down the road. This race is still yet to be decided. We still have a lot of time left in this campaign. And voters are moving at a fairly rapid pace. If Whitman is unable to reverse this trend, then I think you are looking at a real upset here in the making.”
Murphy continued to argue inevitability. “We’re now in a debate over whether Steve Poizner will lose huge, lose medium, or lose a little tighter,” he said. “A vote for Poizner is really in many ways a vote for Jerry Brown because Commissioner Poizner has made himself completely unelectable in the general election.”
He said Whitman is “the only fiscal conservative” in the race and suggested that the campaign would be mailing strongly negative material about Poizner to voters in the coming days.
He also sought to turn Whitman’s Goldman Sachs taint back on Poizner. “The Goldman Sachs ad I know is a big spin item to the Poizner campaign but I don’t know I think it’s got to spin heavy and the full Goldman story has not been told,” Murphy said. He then threw out an allegation for which he offered not a shred of evidence: “I think Mr. Poizner should release his Goldman transactions during that time, during the tech boom when he was a wealthy individual there and I bet 50,000 that those returns would show that Steve Poizner participated in the same kind of IP shares that he’s accusing Meg Whitman of getting.”
Mechanics – The Whitman handlers stressed that their campaign has superior organization, including phone banks and voter contact. In addition to endorsements like the Farm Bureau and former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the campaign has built a huge volunteer structure, said consultant Jeff Randle.
“We are up and running in all 58 counties across the state,” he said. “ We have 15,000 committed volunteers that are out working for us at this stage of the campaign that’s more than any statewide campaign, gubernatorial campaign, that I’ve ever seen in this state. We’ve got phone banks going every night. We’ve got four field offices around the state: LA, Orange County, San Diego and the Bay Area. We started our volunteer program last night, we’ve made almost 100,000 phone calls in the first week. You’ll see yard signs popping up all over the state here in the next couple of days for Meg. On the stump you see crowds continue to grow, there’s excitement, there’s momentum, there’s buzz.”
Murphy predicted that a huge proportion of the electorate – 30-35% — would cast their votes as permanent absentees by the end of May suggesting that the notion that there’s still a lot of time left to move against Whitman is a fallacy.
Stevens mocked the notion that Whitman is “a grassroots candidate” and said the fact that Murphy was talking about process was a sign that their messaging had failed.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the Poizner campaign disputed Murphy’s assertion that a third of primary voters would cast ballots so early because of the many high-visibility propositions that voters will want to study before coming to a conclusion and mailing in their ballots.
Perhaps the most intriguing subject was one that was not discussed: unlike most other campaigns, there was no mention of fundraising, normally cited by campaigns as a marker of progress or success. With the two zillionaire squaring off, money is not obviously no object.
Calbuzz bottom line- The Republican race has now been joined and the big winner in yesterday’s spin war was the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Said Murphy, calling Poizner a “surrogate” for the attorney general and the labor unions: “The one person who’s enjoying this more than anyone else is Jerry Brown.”