Velvet gloves in debate by California’s GOP candidates in governor’s race

Republican candidates for governor Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner met in a generally genteel debate Monday evening that skipped lightly over detailed solutions to California’s grievous fiscal mess in favor of the familiar arguments that each has made for months as they drive toward the June 8 primary.

Whitman argued that she would bring an outsider’s perspective to Sacramento and present the sharpest possible contrast to the presumptive Democratic nominee, former governor and current Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. Brown, she said, brought to the race a “record of failure.”

“I have met a payroll. I have balanced budgets, I have been on the receiving end of all kinds of burdensome regulations,” she said. “I know what it’s like to run a business in California, and I know how hard it is.”

Poizner, who is trailing Whitman in pre-primary polls, sought again and again to define her as too liberal for the party’s core voters, an argument he has forwarded more sharply in recent weeks.

“I want to fix the state of California by implementing some bold, sweeping reforms that include tax cuts across the board, where Meg and I disagree,” he said. “I want to stop illegal immigration by cutting off taxpayer-funded benefits. . . . Meg doesn’t want to go that far.

“We even disagree on abortion. The fact is I want to drive the number of abortions down . . . stop government funding of abortions. Meg and I disagree on that.”

The debate broke ground not because of its content but for the fact that it occurred. Sponsored by the New Majority Foundation, a GOP group, it was the first between the two remaining major candidates and came after months in which Whitman had declined to take part in such sessions.

A few times, Whitman offered what she called a “fact check” on Poizner, saying, for example, that his position on immigration is more restrictive than it once was. She also criticized him for donating $200,000 to a ballot measure that reduced the proportion of voters who must approve tax hikes for schools.

But by and large Poizner was the more pointed in drawing a contrast between the two. He even offered an oblique criticism of Whitman’s media preferences after she recounted an interview she had heard on National Public Radio.

“Another major difference between Meg and me -- I don’t listen to NPR,” he said, alluding to its reputation as catering to liberals.

Poizner entered the debate hoping to change the momentum in the race, which has largely been defined by Whitman’s spending. By the beginning of the year, she had put $39 million of her own money into the contest, setting the record for personal spending in a California race. Poizner has donated $19 million of his money, but has yet to spend much of it on ads.

If he expected Monday to change the trajectory, he may be disappointed: No television station aired the debate in its entirety. It was streamed live over the Web, but complications prevented some viewers from seeing the event.

The faceoff took place amid constant concern in Sacramento about the state’s deficit, which totals at least $20 billion over the next 15 months. And it occurred on the same day that state education officials announced that 22,000 teachers, librarians and counselors received notices of possible layoffs.

On the deficit, Poizner called for across-the-board spending cuts, while Whitman declared that cuts tailored to increasing jobs were her preference. But neither offered a detailed plan. Neither mentioned the layoffs and both said problems in the public school system are not caused by lack of funds.

“I actually think we are spending about the right amount of money,” Whitman said. “I think it is how we spend that money. The overhead and administration is too big here. Imagine spending 40% on overhead and administration.”

Poizner referred repeatedly to his year of teaching at Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, where, he said, he learned about state control on his first day in the classroom as the roof began leaking. Although school maintenance is the responsibility of local school districts, Poizner inexplicably blamed the leaky roof on the state Legislature.

“How come they can’t fix a roof at Mount Pleasant High School? Who runs the place?” Poizner said he thought that day. “Unfortunately the Legislature does.”

Poizner’s attempts to define Whitman as too liberal for Republican primary voters rested largely on two issues that regularly flare in tough economic times -- taxes and immigration. But she batted back any suggestion that she would weaken in the face of efforts to cut the requirement for a two-thirds legislative vote to approve tax increases and the state budget. Essentially, their disagreement pivoted on whether wholesale cuts or targeted ones were more appropriate.

Whitman called for eliminating several taxes that she said harm business growth.

“Meg just said it, she thinks we can’t afford across-the-board tax cuts. In a Republican primary? Wow,” Poizner said.

The candidates similarly tussled over whose position was best on immigration and global warming. In both cases, Poizner tacked rightward and Whitman allowed for some nuance.

Poizner blamed the state’s anti-global-warming measure (AB 32) for escalating California’s jobless rate -- even though much of the law was not in effect when the unemployment rate took off. He said he would take the measure off the table until joblessness eased dramatically and for an extended time. He said he would impose a “dedicated dispute resolution system” to push through manufacturing projects in one year or less.

Whitman countered that she wanted a one-year moratorium on all new regulations, not just AB 32, and said regulations should be streamlined so approvals could be had in two months.

“Let’s stop the madness and streamline the regulations we have,” she said, asserting that California needed to control the market in green technology.

Poizner has been sharply conservative on the issue of immigration lately, and Monday was no exception. Drawing a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, he blamed the latter for crowded emergency rooms and schools in which teachers are “overwhelmed.”

“The fact is we have to stop illegal immigration. The only way to do it is turn the magnets off,” he said, referring to allowing undocumented children to attend school and receive benefits.

“Steve’s done a complete about-face from where he was in 2004,” Whitman responded, referring to his support then for a path to legal status for undocumented workers.