Whitman Defines Herself As The Un-Schwarzenegger

05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Former eBay chief Meg Whitman's campaign for governor of California has a familiar ring to it: She's an outsider from the business world who promises to sweep the Capitol clean of politics-as-usual and deliver fiscal common sense.

California voters have heard that before. It's roughly the same message fellow Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pitched during the 2003 gubernatorial recall election that elevated him to power.

With California mired in a deep budget crisis and partisanship as bitter as ever, Schwarzenegger is widely seen as having failed to deliver on that promise.

That's why, despite their party alliance, Whitman is taking any opportunity she can to distance herself from Schwarzenegger and his tenure. She sometimes uses harsh language to suggest that the governor has been, at the very least, a disappointment and that she will be different.

The billionaire former chief executive of eBay casts herself as a serious, plain-Jane businesswoman who knows how to meet a payroll and create a balance sheet, unlike the bodybuilder-turned movie star-turned governor who she suggests has been more concerned with his image than fulfilling his promise of fiscal responsibility.

"We need a governor with a spine of steel who will look at the books, decide on priorities, deal with the Legislature and take the heat for what we cut and what we fund," Whitman said when she officially announced her candidacy last September. "If being popular and getting re-elected is your goal, then being governor is a really bad job-person fit."

She repeats variations on that theme at most of her campaign stops, often adding that she possesses the kind of focus the current administration lacks.

"The most important thing that the next governor of California has to do is actually deliver the goods," Whitman said.

Her jabs at the current occupant of the governor's office may be necessary. In some ways, Schwarzenegger represents her biggest adversary in this year's campaign, although he isn't on any ballot.

Seven years ago, California voters were enchanted with the prospect of a well-known political outsider who carried a message of fiscal reform and promised to sweep in and rescue the state from its financial despair.

Today, Schwarzenegger has an approval rating of 27 percent and has failed to deliver on the one mandate voters gave him: Fix the state's budget mess.

Whitman's concern is that those voters will not be willing to hand the reins of government to another political novice, especially a Republican one in a state where the GOP represents less than a third of the electorate.

In trying to cast herself differently, Whitman has zeroed in on one of Schwarzenegger's weaknesses: his seeming inability to focus on one policy initiative and follow it through to completion.

From his abandoned strategic plan for streamlining state government, to pursuing the substantive fiscal changes he promised while campaigning, to education reform that he has at times called a top priority, Schwarzenegger has hopped from issue to issue, leaving many of the massive challenges facing California unresolved.

Whitman's campaign is built on promising voters that she will not fall victim to the same distractions.

She continually emphasizes that she will concentrate on just three areas: creating private-sector jobs, cutting government spending and fixing education. Whitman said she will not try to "boil the ocean" by taking on too much.

Even former Gov. Pete Wilson, a fellow Republican and an early political mentor to Schwarzenegger, took a veiled jab at the governor in a radio commercial for Whitman, who he is endorsing.

"We must elect a governor ... with the courage to make tough decisions and to say no to the spenders in the Legislature," Wilson said.

Yet Whitman has not offered any evidence that she will fare better than Schwarzenegger did as a political novice who was quickly confronted with an independent Legislature and entrenched special interests.

Her opponent in the Republican race for governor, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, also is running against Schwarzenegger's record, although not as stridently.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Poizner said he supported many of Schwarzenegger's early efforts at reform, such as changes to the state's workers compensation system. Yet he, too, blamed the governor for lacking focus.

"I think he completely lost interest in being a reformer," Poizner said. "He was elected, you know, to fix the fiscal mess, and then he moved on to other issues because they were easier. I'm not going to do that."

Both GOP candidates also said they would suspend California's landmark greenhouse gas emissions law, which Schwarzenegger signed in 2006.

Whitman calls the legislation a "job-killing" burden that will lead eventually to the loss of more than a million California jobs. She and Poizner say it should be suspended until the state's economy makes a dramatic turnaround.

Her attention to core business interests is one of the main distinctions Whitman tries to draw between herself and Schwarzenegger, telling one interviewer that she "understands how to run things efficiently and effectively."

Schwarzenegger has laughed off most of the jabs as political theater.

Even if his blessing was sought later in the year, there's no guarantee Schwarzenegger would support one of the Republicans. He told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd last month that he wouldn't be upset if former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, returned to the governor's office.

"I think the best person should win, whatever party that is," he said.