Still short on details, Meg Whitman takes two stands that could hurt her

Occasionally, like a trail of water finding a path through stone, honesty seeps into a political event. Proof came a few days ago at an Orange County gathering for Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor.

Mary Bono Mack, the Palm Springs congresswoman, braced the crowd with the odds for the EBay billionaire, who is making her first bid for elective office in the 2010 election.

“This is an uphill battle, as you know,” Mack told the crowd, whose presidential candidate was routed here six months ago. “California is a tough state.”

That presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, told his fellow Republicans their party needs to show “we will not only tolerate, but embrace, people who happen to disagree on a specific issue” -- code for abortion rights, which Whitman favors and McCain, like most of the party, opposes.

Joining the cavalcade of bluntness, Whitman recounted a conversation she’d had with McCain when she first thought of running.

“John always encouraged me to always be authentic,” she said. “Be your true self; say what you mean and mean what you say. Because if you don’t, voters will smell it a million miles away.”

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there as Whitman hewed closely to her strategy to become governor of a state mired in massive debt: Declare agreeable principles -- create more jobs, control spending, help public schools -- but add almost none of the specifics that might alienate the blocs of voters whose support must align perfectly for her to succeed.

Meg Whitman’s campaign, a whirling dervish of an organization already, with a year to go before the Republican primary, is built on the hope that voters will defy the challenges posed by Mack, McCain and Whitman herself.

Can she win in a state dominated more and more by voters sympathetic to Democrats, in which she clashes with her own party on the social issues that have dominated GOP primaries? And can she, authentically a business chieftain, win at a time when business, to many voters, connotes big earnings for bosses and big layoffs for workers?

In Tustin last week, the town hall-style event with Whitman and McCain served up conflicting glimpses of the candidate.

At times, Whitman still appeared to reside in the world where she succeeded for so many years. As she recounted a story that took place before her 2008 departure from the Internet sales firm she led for a decade, she used present tense as she said, “We all sit in cubicles at EBay.” When she vowed to streamline the government, she said it was in order “to give great customer service and benefits at much lower cost.”

Her campaign still shelters her from routine give-and-take; reporters were forced to stay inside the Marconi Automotive Museum as she arrived and as she departed in a black Cadillac Escalade. Her campaign speaking style lapsed often into a monotone, as if recounting details from a quarterly report.

Her most emphatic and succinct responses came, interestingly, on two issues that could cause her trouble in a Republican primary but ease her way in a general election: abortion and immigration.

During the question-and-answer session, a woman asked a blunt question: When, in your opinion, does life begin?

Not flinching, Whitman answered that “as many of you know, I am pro-choice,” using terminology favored by abortion rights advocates. She said she wanted to lessen the number of abortions, limit unintended pregnancies and make adoption “far more easy and relevant for all people.”

“But for me, personally, I feel that I don’t want to take the choice away from women, their doctors, their spouses and other people in their lives. So thank you for that,” she said.

In the course of her campaign, Whitman has gone back and forth on the issue of illegal immigrants, particularly to what extent and where authorities should go after them and their children. In answer to questions last week, she hewed to talking points about securing the border, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and forcing cities to obey federal immigration laws.

But she also went out of her way to emphasize the contributions of immigrants.

“We can’t lose the fact that legal immigration into this country has been a large part of our country’s heritage and is an incredible economic opportunity for California,” she said. ". . . So we must secure the borders, but we can’t forget that legal immigration has made this state great.”

Not coincidentally, women and Latinos -- groups particularly activated by issues of abortion and immigration -- are two of Whitman’s three targets in the 2010 election. Whitman herself, asked to describe how she as a Republican would put together a general election victory, cited her desire to do well among those groups and voters aged 18 to 29. In other words, the very voters who have trended strongly Democratic in recent elections.

But in pursing that goal, her alternately tough and vague prescriptions on the economy and the state’s budget may limit her appeal.

She said, without much apparent sympathy, that she would fire up to 40,000 state workers. She offered platitudes rather than specifics: “I refuse to let California fail.” “We do not have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.” She talked at length about the importance of public education but did not suggest any means of improvement. She said the priority for government should be “public safety, public safety, public safety” but did not disclose how she would pay for overburdened prisons.

She cited cuts of $400 million that could be made by consolidating state purchasing, a pittance compared to the current deficit of roughly $24 billion. Closing the deficit, she suggested, could come from plain and simple prioritizing.

“We have to say what is the most important thing to do with the money we have and how do we do it very effectively,” she said, leaving the details for another day.

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