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Tactics split state’s top two GOP contenders

On the campaign trail at a recent “tea party” event, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina dropped a reference to her husband’s guns, chided her Democratic opponent for vilifying backers of Arizona’s tough immigration law and renewed her commitment to offshore drilling and to suspending the state’s global warming law.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has argued that her position on illegal immigration isn’t very different from that of her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown. She recently pushed back against a hostile questioner by noting her support for abortion rights. And she announced that she would oppose a ballot measure that would roll back the state’s climate change law.

Those diverging messages have been secondary to the topic both women talk about most about: jobs. But they also illustrate the markedly different strategies they have chosen this year in a state where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans.

Whitman is following the well-tested route of Republican candidates who have succeeded statewide in California. After stressing her conservatism in the primary, she softened her rhetoric and began emphasizing her moderate stances to appeal to independents.

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Fiorina has chosen a riskier strategy. She has stood firm on the conservative positions she staked out in the primary, betting that Republicans’ enthusiasm this year will help overcome Democrats’ registration advantage and that swing voters will overlook the areas where her views are out of sync with theirs.

“If Meg wins, that’s not a big shock. She’s kind of like Arnold [Schwarzenegger], and we’ve had mainly Republican governors” in recent decades, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “If Carly wins, that’s a big deal.... We’re going to have to stop and really think when we say California is a light blue state.”

There are still three weeks until the election, but Whitman so far has outpaced Fiorina in the polls, in no small part because her well-financed campaign has allowed her to reach a greater number of voters. In a recent Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll, Whitman trailed Brown by 5 points while Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer had opened an 8-point lead over Fiorina (after a week in which Boxer launched a searing ad attacking Fiorina’s corporate record).

The poll also showed that Whitman is better known to California voters than Fiorina and had made inroads with moderates as well as Democrats.

Those findings reflected both the women’s beliefs and the way they have run their races against two opponents who are viewed as liberal.

Whitman has been able to spend money on mailers and television ads that zero in on the concerns of independent and Democrats voters, a luxury Fiorina has not had. Even before the primary, the former EBay chief executive staked out moderate positions on abortion and aspects of the immigration debate that put her at odds with conservative voters.

Conservatives were initially skeptical of Fiorina, questioning her commitment to core GOP values, especially on social issues. But some of those concerns were put to rest after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive as one of her “Mama Grizzlies.” (Though Fiorina welcomed Palin’s support, she is skipping a chance to appear with her at a GOP rally Saturday in Anaheim. Both she and Whitman said they already had other events scheduled.)

Over the course of the election, both candidates have sought to reach independent and moderate voters by tapping into their frustration with spending and dysfunction in Washington and Sacramento. But stark contrasts have emerged in their approaches to three other areas: the environment, immigration and abortion.

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After the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast, Fiorina did not back off her support for expanded drilling off California’s coast. After expressing some openness to drilling, Whitman retreated, stating she would agree to more drilling only if there were a “next to zero” risk to the environment.

Both Fiorina and Whitman railed against the state’s climate change law as a “job-killer,” and Whitman ultimately decided that her plan for a one-year delay was preferable to the ballot measure that would suspend the rules until unemployment drops to 5.5% for a year. Fiorina backed the measure, arguing that the risk of lost jobs was too great.

Although Whitman promised in the primary to be “tough as nails” on illegal immigration, she later erected Spanish-language billboards that highlighted her opposition to the Arizona law and Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that would have denied public schooling and some other benefits to illegal immigrants.

Fiorina backed the Arizona law, has yet to take a position on Proposition 187 and has framed illegal immigration as a national security issue, predicting recently that “the drug war that is going on in Mexico will come to this country. It is already in some ways here.”

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The issue that analysts say will be widely watched is abortion. In past years, abortion has been used by Democrats — most notably Boxer — as a wedge issue in a state where 7 in 10 Californians favor abortion rights. The last GOP candidate to win a top state office as an opponent of abortion rights was Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s.

But some analysts question whether abortion rights supporters, notably young women, are as focused on this issue now, given that some no longer see legal abortion as being under imminent threat.

Either way, Whitman’s support for abortion rights has essentially negated that issue in the governor’s race. Fiorina has spoken without hesitation about her opposition to abortion rights and has said she would support overturning the landmark decision Roe vs. Wade if the opportunity arose.

Although Fiorina is emphasizing issues that will pump up the turnout among conservatives, some Republican analysts privately question whether that will be enough to win in a state like California.

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Fiorina’s campaign manager, Marty Wilson, pointed out, however, that the conservative stances that Fiorina took in the primary “are consistent with her own personal views and values.” To “suddenly change course and say ‘I didn’t really mean it’ — that would be devastating,” Wilson said.

“Consistency is very, very important to voters. They will look beyond areas where they disagree if they at least know where the person stands…. The things that people are concerned about are bread-and-butter issues; they’re not really spending a lot of time thinking about social issues.”

As the two top-ticket Republican candidates aim their appeals to different voters, some believe they could help each other. Whitman’s massive campaign coffers and army of volunteers to get out the vote undoubtedly helps Fiorina, who has raised less money than Boxer.

And conservatives who have grown unnerved by Whitman’s post-primary statements about immigration and climate change legislation could be driven to the polls by their support for Fiorina and end up voting for Whitman as well.

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GOP strategist Adam Mendelsohn said the choices that both women have made illustrate the conundrum of running as a Republican in California.

“It’s a very delicate dance of this concept of energizing a conservative base while not alienating yourself from decline-to-state and centrist voters,” he said. “The fact of matter is even with a heavy turnout amongst the base, you still need significant numbers of decline-to-state and centrist voters in order to win the election.”

maeve.reston@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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