Poizner, Whitman spar in final round of campaign

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The long, contentious and extraordinarily expensive California primary campaign came to a close Monday with a flurry of last-minute electioneering meant to lure any voters still undecided despite — or perhaps because of — the blizzard of nasty ads that has marked this election season.

As the last of tens of millions of dollars in television spots flew over the airwaves, the frontrunners in the Republican races for governor and senator signaled their confidence by tossing general election gibes at their prospective Democratic opponents. Their challengers, clawing for advantage to the end, also traversed the state in search of votes.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, although many Californians have already cast ballots, using the state’s extensive vote-by-mail program. Voting by mail could easily make up more than half the overall tally in the primary, some elections officials said.

The election ended as it began, a curiously lopsided one. In the top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. senator, Democratic candidates have been largely on the sidelines as Republicans took each other on ferociously. Former governor and current Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown had only token opposition in his quest to return to the top office in Sacramento. Sen. Barbara Boxer, seeking her fourth term in Washington, had only nominal opposition as well.

Democrats were engaged in fierce party battles in the lower offices, including lieutenant governor and attorney general. And clashing primaries were the rule among Republicans, including a divisive contest for attorney general.

Yet the top Republican races surmounted all others in terms of drama and dollars. The GOP governor’s primary has obliterated the record for the most expensive primary in the state’s history. As of May 22, former EBay chief Meg Whitman had spent more than $80 million — including $71 million of her own money — in her first quest for public office. Her opponent Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, had put in $24 million of his own money.

As the two campaigned Monday, their standing was clear. In the San Fernando Valley, and later in Orange County and San Diego, Whitman, the frontrunner, criticized Brown rather than Poizner.

“Every single problem he saw, he wanted to solve with a tax increase,” she said of the former governor during a stop at a Woodland Hills strip mall, where volunteers were making calls for her. “This will be a very contested general election but I know … we can take back Sacramento.”

In Costa Mesa, Whitman placed six phone calls to voters.

“Hi John, it’s Meg Whitman calling and I am calling because, as you probably know, I am running for governor of California,” she said. The voter apparently was stunned to be talking to the candidate plastered across his television screen, for after a pause Whitman responded, “Yes, you really are, and it’s not a ‘robocall,’ how about that?”

Whitman and Poizner have been blasting each other on illegal immigration, abortion and Proposition 13, but the frontrunner said Monday that it was clear what was on the minds of California voters.

“The thing that is most import to Californians is jobs, how we put people back to work, how we get this economy going again,” she said. “Jobs is the No. 1 issue.”

Poizner, too, talked about jobs Monday, but he also continued to seek advantage over Whitman with his favorite issue of the campaign. At an appearance in Pasadena, the candidate spoke at a podium flanked by two signs that read “No Amnesty. Stop Illegal Immigration.”

He skipped through his economic plan, which would cut taxes across the board, but won his biggest applause when he praised the tough new Arizona immigration measure. At one point he linked the two by asserting that the state’s financial woes were caused by businesses leaving California while illegal immigrants and others boosted the state’s population.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the worst of all worlds —- we have consumers of government services coming in, we have taxpayers leaving,” he said. “No wonder we cannot balance the budget.”

He also took off after Whitman for one final day. He said that her millions had been spent “attacking me falsely and incorrectly.” He gibed at her business record, noting to laughs from the crowd that she had been “the project manager for Mr. Potato Head” while he was a technology entrepreneur.

The Senate race has been a somewhat more muted affair, and the final day was no exception. Former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina dashed across the state, taking repeated aim at her hoped-for general election opponent Boxer.

“Everybody’s had enough,” the GOP frontrunner said in Burbank. “They’ve had enough of a government that’s out of control; they’ve had enough of 28 years of Barbara Boxer. People want to take our government back, make it listen and make it work and we’re going to start by beating Barbara Boxer in November.”

In a final appearance in San Diego, Fiorina threw another elbow at Boxer. “This is a woman who has voted in her tenure in Washington, D.C., for over a trillion in tax increases,” Fiorina said. “This is a woman who has never met a government spending program she didn’t like.”

Fiorina also leaned Monday on her celebrity endorser, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin’s voice was on taped calls that went out to voters Monday, asking them to “help get our country back on track” by electing Fiorina.

The two other candidates in the race, former Rep. Tom Campbell and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine, spent the entire campaign seeking the sort of largesse from donors that Fiorina was able to supply herself. Tellingly, the last day of the campaign found them reaching out via media interviews — an inexpensive, though not necessarily successful, method of communicating with voters.

Both argued that Fiorina was a flawed frontrunner, and that Democrats would be able to exploit her failings in the fall.

“I’ve got cause for optimism,” said Campbell, citing a recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll that showed that he was the only one of the GOP candidates who could beat Boxer. (Unfortunately for Campbell, the poll also showed him losing the primary, decisively, to Fiorina.)

DeVore insisted that Tuesday’s results will be determined by low voter turnout.

“That means voter intensity is key,” said DeVore, whose supporters are aggressive, if not large in number. “I am not conceding an inch to anybody.” Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.