A funny thing happened on the way to the wood chipper. Steve Poizner, the guy who was supposed to get chopped into tiny pieces, has shredded billionaire Meg Whitman's once seemingly insurmountable lead in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.
Poizner has all but closed the gap between himself and the one-time front-runner, several Republican insiders told me.
"We're not surprised that the race has tightened," said Whitman consultant Rob Stutzman. "He has spent $17 (million) to $18 million driving up her negatives and is demagoguing on immigration."
The turnaround seemed all but impossible back on March 24 when the Public Policy Institute of California issued a poll showing that Whitman led Poizner by 50 percentage points. Those numbers prompted many political junkies, myself included, to figure Poizner was done. But this campaign has been weird from the start, beginning when Whitman's consultant, Mike Murphy, promised Poizner unlimited help to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2012. If Poizner refused to step aside, Murphy warned, the Whitman camp would feed Poizner through "a wood chipper." Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner, happens to have a black belt in Shotokan karate and doesn't scare easily. He called for a criminal investigation, prompting Murphy to question Poizner's mental stability.
Then Whitman got nasty, ridiculing Poizner in ads that featured an oh-so-clever ditty and caricatures. The "Steve Shuffle" includes the line "Flip and flop is the name of his game and if we trust we'd be insane."
"They were insulting, demeaning, personal," said Poizner's strategist, Stuart Stevens. The spots reinforced Whitman's image as a "billionaire bully."
Whitman's campaign has been arrogant, even for California, where insipid 30-second television ads take the place of stump speeches, and politicians with the most money to buy the most airtime almost always win.
She may yet win the primary and become governor, but her campaign has an inauthentic nature. She apparently will spend whatever it takes — $64 million and counting — but doesn't truly engage with voters. She holds staged "town hall" meetings where she faces no tough questioning, travels by private jet and limo to fundraisers attended by other wealthy people and rarely deigns to answer questions from the chattering class.
Her imperial demeanor is made worse by her past failure to have engaged in the most basic of civic affairs — voting.
The PPIC survey taken in March contained a hint of what would result in Poizner's rise, the partisan rift over immigration.
While 64 percent of Democrats believe immigrants benefit the state, 68 percent of Republicans believe they are a burden, the survey found. A far greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats believe illegal immigrants ought to be deported.
Poizner's stand on illegal immigration explains his ascent. He would end all public aid to illegal immigrants, including public schooling, though a U.S. Supreme Court ruling bars their expulsion. Whitman has tried to come off tough on illegal immigrants, too, but says children shouldn't suffer for their parents' actions.
Poizner's big boost came when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last month signed legislation making it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant in Arizona, and authorized local police to question and detain people they suspect are illegal immigrants. Arizona's action pushed illegal immigration to the forefront just as Poizner was airing ads on the topic. While Whitman has been critical of the Arizona law, Poizner embraces it.
Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, said he has seen polling that shows 84 percent of California Republicans support the Arizona immigration law. That sentiment has helped shift momentum toward Poizner.
No matter what you think of Poizner and his stand on illegal immigration — kicking kids out of school is over the top, in my view — his campaign is far different from Whitman's.
Poizner is wealthy and is spending heavily. But the $23.2 million he has dumped into the race is a third of what Whitman has spent.
He doesn't travel inside a bubble. He engages with voters, as he did the other night in the high school gym in Shingle Springs.
"It's great to be in a room full of conservatives," Poizner said as he began his talk. He spoke about his belief in free markets and how California is losing jobs to India, Nevada and Texas. He decried taxes on cell phones, beer and capital gains, promised to repeal some gun laws and vowed to sue to ensure water delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms.
He got his biggest applause when he pledged to "stop the flow of illegal immigrants coming to California."
He ended his speech with an invitation to "fire away on any question."
THE SACRAMENTO BEE