May 10, 2010

Ugh. Does this sound like someone prepared to run the eighth largest economy in the world? Funny thing. It turns out that trying to manage the press by refusing to take questions at press conferences, limiting interviews to a bare five minutes, nasty and annoying ads against your primary rival and a sketchy record of Republican stances in an era that demands ideological purity doesn't get the media warming to you and therefore, tends to make your support erode.

How can a candidate who has already lent her campaign $59 million and hired the best consulting team money can buy find herself in a dogfight with three weeks to go?

In conversations with close observers of California politics, a few reasons for Whitman's struggles stand out.

First, the state has a history of wariness toward free-spending business people running for office. From Michael Huffington to Al Checchi to Steve Westly, candidates whose money stands at the center of their campaigns have been rejected. (Poizner is something of a flawed messenger on this issue, having already donated $19 million of his own money to his bid.)

Second, Whitman has allowed herself to be defined as the insider in a year when being the outsider represents the political high ground. With former governor Pete Wilson serving as her campaign chairman and endorsements from national political figures such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Whitman has turned into the de facto incumbent. Poizner has sought to drive that point home to voters with an ad in which Whitman morphs into Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) -- a decidedly unpopular figure among Republican voters.

Third, Whitman's adversarial relationship with the press -- she has had several high-profile run-ins with the media in the state, and her campaign has been accused by Poizner of hiding her from reporters -- has contributed to a sense of entitlement and aloofness that voters find unattractive.

While there is little debate in California Republican circles that Whitman has lost considerable altitude in the primary, there is far less certainty about where the race is headed.

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