Advice for California's GOP candidates for governor

Meg Whitman struck it rich last month when she appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine, with a headline that asked if the Republican gubernatorial hopeful can "save California." It was a flattering profile, with friends and business associates attesting to her leadership skills as the former chief executive of EBay.

Less fortunate was Fortune's choice of a cover shot, which had Whitman next to a horse, holding the reins. It was similar to a photo taken years ago of a certain former California governor -- prompting Fortune editor at large Patricia Sellers to comment on that Whitman is "vying for her next big gig ... Reagan style."

Personally, I don't think Whitman was deliberately trying to tap into the GOP's subconscious by playing the Gipper card. But even if she was, if someone is willing to wear jodhpurs, clear brush and snack on jelly beans, well, that person must really want the job.

Still, the fact that a candidate would be perceived, fairly or unfairly, as mimicking Ronald Reagan a quarter of a century after he last ran for office underscores at least two problems facing California Republicans going into the 2010 gubernatorial election.

First, there's the matter of generational appeal.

The youngest Californian to have voted for Reagan in 1980 -- his first presidential landslide -- is now in his or her mid-40s, close in age to President Obama. As for Generations X and Y, its members have trouble relating to the Reagan revolution, much less to the man himself. Ask young voters who waged the Cold War and they'll likely say NyQuil and Alka-Seltzer. For the same reason that the Dodgers showcase Manny Ramirez and not Kirk Gibson, California Republicans have to resist the urge to revisit the greatest hits of the 1980s and making the election a history lesson on "Morning in America." Save it for Lincoln Day dinners, not the campaign trail.

The second problem: authenticity.

For all its foibles, the electorate has a good truth detector. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for president and handled the Iraq war issue as her husband would: triangulation and double-talk. Enough Democratic primary voters saw through it to deny her the nomination. Ditto Mitt Romney, who couldn't sell Republicans beyond the Iowa caucuses on a centrist record in Massachusetts and an overly simplistic conservative agenda. Here in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger played the role of the "next Hiram Johnson" and the "next Pat Brown" before the current star-turn as a "post-partisan" governor. Republicans don't know which if any of the many Arnolds to believe, so now they'll attempt to punish him in next month's special election.

For Whitman and Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner and her principal rival in the GOP primary, authenticity is key to replacing an actor-turned-governor. Both candidates are relative newcomers to politics (it's Whitman's first campaign; Poizner's third in six years). They will have to answer to accusations that their candidacies are fueled more by opportunism and voter restlessness than core convictions.

But there is one area where they would do well to shamelessly imitate Reagan -- his path to office. As with Whitman's campaign today, the first Reagan run for governor began to take shape soon after the Democrats' winning presidential election in 1964 and a coast-to-coast Republican meltdown. But, although the Reagan campaign was born of the moment, the candidate had been rethinking his progressive roots for the better part of 15 years, ultimately rejecting President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the Democratic Party.

Perhaps Whitman and Poizner can't claim the same ideological evolution or the same prolonged path to the state stage. But, at a minimum, they can tell us how they got to where they are today and what seminal moments shaped -- or reshaped -- their thinking. For Whitman, was it cracking the glass ceiling in the corporate world? For Poizner, was it teaching low-income kids?

Using candor and insightfulness to weave an engaging narrative worked for Reagan four decades ago in explaining how he came to distrust government. More recently, it worked for Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election in convincing voters that the tough guy on screen had an open heart and an open mind.

As individuals whose run for office is financed by personal fortunes born of ingenuity rather than the GOP cliche of trust funds, Whitman and Poizner should leap at the chance to show they are reflective souls, not some manifestation of focus groups and hackneyed rhetoric or the product of political consultants.

To borrow very loosely from Reagan, taking such an approach might go a long way in tearing down the wall that keeps Republicans out of higher office in California.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was chief speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.