In what is shaping up as the most expensive gubernatorial primary in California history, two wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are battling for the Republican nomination for governor, with each trying to lay claim to the title of most conservative.
Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, a billionaire, has tapped her personal fortune to flood her campaign with at least $59 million. Her saturation of the airwaves helped her open a significant lead over Steve Poizner, a technology whiz kid turned state insurance commissioner who sold his GPS chip company for $1 billion.
Poizner has given his campaign $19 million, but held off spending much of it for months, allowing Whitman to define herself through countless television and radio commercials. More recently, the race have been marked by negative ads from both sides, with Poizner seeking to make up ground as the June 8 primary approaches.
Whitman and Poizner, who are both 53, each previously took moderate positions on a variety of issues, from abortion to illegal immigration. They also have donated money in the past to Democratic candidates. Yet the primary season has seen both move sharply to the right as they compete for the more conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries.
Whitman's campaign has attacked Poizner for a series of flip-flops since he first sought elected office during a failed state legislative bid in 2004. At the time, he supported abortion rights, making it easier to raise local parcel taxes for education and environmental protections, stands he has reversed as he seeks the gubernatorial nomination.
Although Poizner once declared himself an "Arnold Schwarzenegger Republican," he has been running television commercials criticizing the governor, whose popularity has plummeted as the state's fiscal fortunes have declined. Poizner's campaign has argued that a Whitman tenure would be akin to a third term of Schwarzenegger, who is disliked by hard-core party activists for his centrist positions and willingness to raise fees and taxes.
As Schwarzenegger was, Whitman is a first-time candidate who until recently had little knowledge of state government operations. She also acknowledged that she failed to vote for most of her adult life.
Whitman spells out her positions on many issues facing the state in a glossy pamphlet, but also skips over the details about how she would accomplish her goals amid the highly partisan gridlocked atmosphere of Sacramento. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, a dynamic that is not expected to change in November.
Meanwhile, Poizner has repeatedly stressed Whitman's ties to Goldman Sachs, the embattled Wall Street investment bank where she once served on the board of directors. He also has highlighted her one-time support for Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.
"Goldman is a big issue," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a Republican media strategist.
"The only worse thing for a candidate in this political climate would be building oil wells for BP," he said. "Her opponents are going to spend more time talking about Goldman Sachs than the SEC (Securities & Exchange Commission) investigators will."
Whitman has said she will spend an unprecedented $150 million in her quest for the governor's office. It's unclear how her wealth will play in a state that has been hit hard by the recession, where foreclosure rates are among the highest in the nation and unemployment has remained above 12 percent for months.
The winner will face a former two-term governor, state Attorney General Jerry Brown, who has decided to lay low while the Republicans punch it out in the primary. In his place, public employee unions and Democratically aligned groups have begun attacking Whitman.
Brown, 72, known as an innovator with ideas that seemed out of the mainstream when he was governor from 1975 to 1983, has since done stints as a radio talk show host, mayor of Oakland and now, state attorney general.
He also has adopted a more conservative platform, announcing that he would not support new taxes unless California voters approve them, and taking centrist positions on state spending and prisons. But he has failed to offer specifics about how to address California's ongoing budget deficits.
Brown faces a long-shot challenge from a founder of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org, Peter Schurman, who says Brown isn't being bold enough in his plans to fix California and is "working from a playbook that's 30 years out of date."
Still, with Brown likely to prevail on the Democratic side, voters in November will be faced with a sharp contrast as they choose who is best to lead the beleaguered state out of its financial morass.
"The great irony here is we're in the greatest wave of populist anger that this country has seen in almost 20 years," Schnur said. "Voters are angry with career politicians and they're angry with big business. What we'll see this fall is an almost perfect decision point for voters to tell us who they hate more."