Gubernatorial candidates Whitman, Poizner clash as Republicans open their convention

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The Republican candidates for governor sniped at each other in dueling news conferences Friday at the opening of the state GOP convention here in Silicon Valley, as each sought advantage for the three-month sprint to the June 8 election.

In a surprise hourlong gathering with reporters whose questions she has assiduously dodged for months, billionaire Meg Whitman portrayed Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner as an untrustworthy liberal.

“Steve Poizner has changed his mind on virtually every major issue since he ran for the Assembly in 2004,” she said, citing Poizner’s rightward shifts on taxes, abortion and offshore oil drilling since he first sought public office in a moderate Bay Area district.

Whitman also criticized Poizner for an increase in Department of Insurance spending on his watch, singling out $1.7 million in car purchases.

“I don’t think we needed new cars,” she said.

Still, after attacking Poizner for his donations to Democrat Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and his Florida ballot recount effort, Whitman conceded that she had donated to Democrat Barbara Boxer in 2003. She said she had done so only because the U.S. senator had opposed Internet taxes.

“I don’t believe in virtually anything else that Barbara Boxer does,” she said.

Poizner, in a subsequent appearance, responded with sarcasm.

Mocking a misstatement in one of Whitman’s TV ads that she later had to correct, he said his opponent was “just simply wrong with her math” about Insurance Department spending.

“She couldn’t figure out even how many years she’d lived in California,” Poizner said.

“She’s not the good source to go to when it comes to accounting of anything,” he said.

Spending under his control actually dropped, he said, and the new cars were for “my fraud team.”

He acknowledged that his views on abortion and other issues had evolved since his first campaign.

“Some of my positions have solidified or crystallized, but I was a conservative back then, and I’m a passionate conservative now,” he said.

As for Whitman’s support for Boxer, he said, “the fact that Meg Whitman helped her get reelected -- in my opinion, that’s done more damage to California than almost anything else that’s happened in many years.”

Beyond her attacks on Poizner, Whitman also broke ranks with the state’s top Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She gave him credit for attempts at political reform and for reducing the burden of workers compensation insurance on employers.

“But when you pull the lens all the way back on him, the truth is the results haven’t been very good,” she said. “Unemployment is at a record high. The K through 12 education system isn’t any better.”

She also faulted him for failing to cut spending as much as necessary.

Schwarzenegger’s staff responded that the state cut $31 billion in spending last year and said that on his watch, spending has risen on average far less than under his predecessors, including Whitman’s campaign chairman, Pete Wilson.

“While it’s nice to see Ms. Whitman finally talking to reporters,” Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear responded, “it would be even better if her comments were based in reality.”

Whitman also pledged Friday to release up to 25 years of personal income tax returns, with one catch: The Democratic candidate, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, must do so first.

“We should challenge Jerry Brown,” said Whitman, who acquired her fortune as chief executive of EBay, the Internet auction giant.

“When he releases taxes, I will,” she said.

Whitman, who has already donated at least $39 million to help fund her campaign, will face Brown in November only if she first defeats Poizner in the Republican primary.

Brown campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford said the attorney general, a former governor and the only major Democrat in the race, would make up to 25 years of tax returns public as soon as he could.

“It’s just a matter of getting it together,” he said.

Whitman made the comments on tax returns a day after her disclosure in a required campaign filing that she had invested in firms that sought to profit from the nation’s credit crisis.

Asked how she would explain such investments to Californians suffering economic hardship, she said, “It’s part of the investment strategy, and I don’t think it makes a difference in terms of hurting individuals.

“It’s a smart investment strategy that we employed both for our personal funds as well as our foundation.”