As John McCain begins a three-day swing today through California -- one of the newest members of his campaign team, outgoing EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, may draw much of the attention.
Whitman, a 51-year-old billionaire, according to Forbes magazine, is said to be considering a run for California governor in 2010 after getting her first taste of politics on the finance team of ex-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a former colleague at the consulting firm Bain & Co.
Whitman was coy about her own political aspirations in an interview Friday about her new role as national co-chairwoman of McCain’s presidential campaign.
The initial speculation began after she met some “very influential and senior Republicans” and big donors while raising money for Romney, and some of those Republican heavyweights said, “ ‘You should think about this,’ ” she recalled.
Whitman waved off questions by saying she was focusing on ensuring a smooth transition for incoming CEO John Donahoe, helping McCain get elected and taking back some of the household responsibilities from her neurosurgeon husband, who picked up the slack while she was at EBay for 10 years.
Pressed on whether she would rule out a run, she said: “Never say never.”
The McCain-Whitman alliance could be beneficial to both of them.
“By the end of this experience . . . she’ll have a real good idea of what she’d have to go through herself to win an election in a state the size of California,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, a former California campaign advisor to Romney.
Republican consultant Don Sipple said Whitman would get to know political donors “that she will need to tap if she was to pursue a political career of her own.”
Whitman’s fundraising skills and connections in Silicon Valley are an obvious asset to McCain, who raised $11 million in February -- compared with the combined $90 million taken in by his Democratic opponents.
McCain’s team is also trying to broaden his appeal among professional women as well as bolster his economic credentials. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was recently named to lead the Republican National Committee’s political and fundraising efforts for the 2008 campaign.
“McCain’s bus is always going to be a boys’ club. . . . So it is good to have nonpolitical women -- meaning Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman -- out there,” Sipple said. “I think McCain is going to have a huge gender gap going into the general election and he’s going to have to ameliorate that.”
Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said he didn’t expect Whitman to make much of difference in drawing voters.
“John McCain has already admitted he doesn’t understand the economy and has joined President Bush in championing policies that show how out of touch he is with the challenges facing working families,” LaVera said in an e-mail. “No new fundraisers can change that.”
Little is known about Whitman’s political views; until recently she was registered as an independent.
She grew up in a Republican family on Long Island. But when she moved from New York to California in 1980, she said, “I had voted Republican most of the time, but I wasn’t entirely sure -- and I thought ‘You know what, let’s just do decline-to-state.’ ”
She wasn’t politically active until Romney called in late 2006, she said. She met McCain when he spoke to a group of EBay users she had accompanied to Washington to talk about small-business issues. The Arizona senator called Whitman seeking her help after Romney suspended his campaign.
Whitman lines up with McCain on many issues -- although she said she doesn’t agree with his call for overturning the abortion rights decision Roe vs. Wade.
The economy “is perhaps the most significant issue that we face today,” she said. After ticking off concerns -- inflation, $100-a-barrel oil, $4-a-gallon gas, the collapse of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns -- Whitman said, “I feel quite strongly that it is important to elect a Republican.”
Whitman said she and McCain share a philosophy of scaling back the role of government, a point of view partly shaped by her EBay experience. “The EBay model is very Republican in its essence -- it’s about making a small number of rules and getting out of the way” while not “overtaxing the community,” she said.
As the nation deals with a weakening economy and the mortgage foreclosure crisis, Whitman said she would work with McCain to press for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent and reducing the corporate tax rate. When asked what could be done about the mortgage foreclosure crisis, she said she approved of “public-private partnerships to keep as many people in their homes as humanly possible.”
“Some of this is simply going to have to take its course,” she said.
In California, Whitman said she generally supports Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s philosophy of avoiding tax hikes to address the state’s budget shortfall. “Tax increases should absolutely be the very last resort,” she said. But Whitman said she had not examined the governor’s proposals for across-the-board cuts closely enough offer an opinion.
She also demurred on immigration, saying she had “not dug in deep as to what the right thing to do is nationally, or for that matter in California.”
McCain has centered his campaign on U.S military success in Iraq. Whitman, who said the 2003 invasion “probably was the right thing to do,” supported the troop buildup in Iraq last year “because once you’re in -- and we’re in deep -- I do feel quite strongly we have to see if there’s a way to win this.”