With campaigning disappearing and becoming irrelevant as we head into the 4th of July weekend, something remarkable has taken place in the race to replace term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's governor.
We're now essentially one-fifth of the way through the general election. Billionaire Republican wannabe governor Meg Whitman has spent a record-shattering $100 million. Jerry Brown has spent virtually nothing. Yet Whitman's campaign has failed to change anything in the overall dynamic of the race.
Nearly a month ago, Whitman, who has contributed at least $93 million to her own campaign, more than any state-level candidate in American history, prevailed in the lowest turnout primary election in the history of California. Since then, she's kept spending and spending. But she's gaining no traction.
This week's new Reuters/Ipsos poll confirms the reputable private poll for a statewide initiative campaign that I reported on my site, New West Notes, last week. Then, Brown led Whitman, 46% to 41%.
Now he leads her, 45% to 39%.
Whitman has been blitzing the state with ads following a mere two-day break after her hard-fought Republican primary win. But she hasn't gained ground on Brown, who has not spent a dime.
Of course, independent expenditure (IE) committees are spending on TV and radio ads on his behalf, with the California Working Families group running negative TV ads on her failure to vote and Working Californians running radio ads on Brown's record. But IE ads are usually not as effective as a candidate making a positive case for him or herself and in any event, at a record-shattering $100 million and counting, Whitman has vastly out-spent all forces opposing her and continues to do so.
And Whitman's campaign tactics have gotten more unusual. Well, "innovative," if you're on the Whitman payroll. "Desperate," if you're a Whitman critic.
I'll go with "peculiar."
Whitman, irked about dogged at her public appearances by the California Nurses Association's theater troupe of "Queen Meg" and her royal court, has instructed her people to take on the nurses. Which is stupid for two reasons. First, the nurses won't back off. They didn't back off against Arnold Schwarzenegger, so they certainly won't back off against a corporate suit. Second, Whitman's campaign is succeeding in elevating a sideshow into the center of the frame.
But good judgment has not followed Whitman in her very brief time in public affairs, since she decided that maybe she should bother to register to vote after all. Whitman was national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008, and worked very hard to make Sarah Palin vice president of the United States, just one tortured POW's heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Whitman's former colleague Palin, incidentally, has twice attacked Brown since the primary election. Of course, she's not targeting Brown nearly so much as she does President Barack Obama, who carried California in 2008 with 61% of the vote against the campaign Whitman co-chaired.
Another example of Whitman's desperate, innovative, or simply peculiar tactics is her move to suddenly present herself as a great friend to the Latino community in expensive new Spanish language TV and radio advertising.
The reality is that Whitman somehow managed not to hire Latino executives as CEO of eBay, something which, needless to say, is not easy to pull off in California. She made ex-Governor Pete Wilson, the bete noire of the Latino community for his promotion of the unconstitutional Proposition 187 anti-illegal immigration initiative, her campaign chairman, and touts him as the best governor California's ever had. (Which is a low hanging fastball I'll get to in due time.) In the heat of her primary fight with Steve Poizner, Whitman, who once said she was for comprehensive immigration reform, came out against it and presented herself as "tough as nails" on immigration, as Wilson put it in plenty of advertising for her, vowing to crack down everywhere. Now she's flip-flopped, again, trying to spin a record that doesn't exist.
The word in Republican campaign consulting circles is that, if you can get in the door with a scheme that looks like it might alter the equation of the race, no matter how untried it is, you can make very big money.
So Whitman is also spending millions of her own money on various forms of techno-gadgetry to try to get an edge. Not that she is a particularly good judge of such things.
Whitman spent billions of eBay shareholders' money on Skype, the Internet telephony service. But there was one problem that I noticed as an early adopter: It really didn't work very well. If Whitman couldn't avoid that debacle, how is she to know if any of the schemes she's desperately buying now are anything more than shiny irrelevancies?
Whitman and her crew like to try to recast Brown as something of a Luddite relic. But the reality is that he has five time as many Twitter followers as she does, and it didn't cost him a dime. He was the first major politician to use a personal computer, appointed some of the real giants of Silicon Valley to his first administration, and has used e-mail longer than I have.
The positive TV ad that Whitman launched after a two-day post-primary advertising respite, in which she presented her corporate conservative agenda of big tax breaks for wealthy investors and corporations and rollback of regulations as evidence of her concern for the unemployed failed completely, as I expected it would. Whitman's own research shows this.
So she looked for new tactics, and also launched a derisive 60-second TV ad attacking Jerry Brown. An extremely inaccurate ad, as it happens.
Factcheck.org, the highly regarded project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, on Thursday denounced Whitman's 60-second TV attack ad against Jerry Brown as thoroughgoing in its falseness. Point by point, factcheck.org refutes Whitman's second TV ad of her general election campaign as false and distorted.
Whitman's war with the nurses points up what the oddity of the rest of what she is doing to try to alter the equation.
Schwarzenegger's would-be Republican successor Whitman, is actually stumbling into an earlier major pitfall of the governator's. With their amusing ongoing "Queen Meg" theatrical production shadowing her movements, the Whitman campaign upped the ante beyond summer stock to escalated attacks.
Responding to what I'm told are the demands of a flustered and angered Whitman, her campaign first demanded that the nurses union, which is supporting Jerry Brown, turn over its membership list to the Whitman campaign so Whitman could send a letter defending herself and extolling her virtues. That was an obvious non-starter. Naturally, the nurses union countered by inviting Whitman to appear with Brown at a gubernatorial forum.
Whitman's response? She'll only debate before non-partisan groups. Actually, she doesn't really want to debate before anybody; she's notorious for avoiding debates and is still turning down Brown's offer of 10 town hall debates. She will debate once, in October, in a staid format.
Whitman then had her minions attack nurses union director RoseAnn DeMoro for being paid a few times more than what the average nurse makes. Which is, needless to say, a very odd line of attack coming from a billionaire. Especially one who increased her compensation and perks at eBay as the company's performance sharply declined.
Whitman also launched an attack web site and put out a poll purportedly taken from a sampling of nurses indicating greater sympathy for Whitman.
The nurses union then upped the ante, scheduling a large forum near Whitman's home later this month in leafy Atherton and announcing a coming advertising campaign on the theme that "Nurses Won't Be Pushed Around." And yes, that is a pointed reference to Whitman's very expensive physical altercation with one of her employees not long before she announced her departure from the firm.
Whitman's chief strategist is Mike Murphy, who made himself one of the biggest lobbyists in the state after Schwarzenegger's 2003 election and was Schwarzenegger's chief strategist in 2005 when the nurses union bedeviled the action superstar during his disastrous special election initiatives campaign. He can't really think these are good moves, can he?
For his part, speaking Sunday night in Los Angeles at the Southern California Journalism Awards, Schwarzenegger ripped Whitman's purported plan (without mentioning her by name) to fire 40,000 state workers as "bogus talk."
In the more than a year that Whitman has been repeating the 40,000 jobs cut figure as part of her robotic talking points, she has yet to explain where those cuts should happen.
Schwarzenegger encouraged reporters to ask where those cuts would be made.
The truth is that her lack of traction after the first fifth of the general election campaign reflects a harsh reality for the mother of Griffith Rutherford Harsh V.
The standard megabucks promotional efforts aren't working, so she's trying new stuff. Meanwhile, problems of the recent past are re-emerging.
Not long after her son's arrest for assaulting a girl whose ankle was broken in the physical altercation became public knowledge (the charges were ultimately dropped), Whitman finally admitted publicly that she had a physical altercation with an employee that led to what the New York Times reported was a $200,000 settlement not long before Whitman resigned from eBay.
That particular change of story for Whitman came last week.
Whitman spokesperson Sarah Pompei had previously claimed that it was merely a "verbal dispute." Whitman herself, appearing on a softball right-wing talk radio show -- hosted by Sacramentan Eric Hogue, who served as a cheerleader at at least one Whitman rally -- had also made the same false claim.
Which had raised, among Whitman campaign insiders and others, the question of whether she indulged in racial epithets with the employee, an Asian woman who works in PR. Whitman's son reportedly got in trouble at Princeton for a racial comment.
Whitman, who also left her other CEO post, at the flower delivery firm FTD, not long after settling claims that she engaged in age discrimination, admitted that she aggressively laid hands on the smaller female eBay employee.
"It escalated and I ... escorted her out of the room and then I went back to what I needed to do in that meeting," Whitman told reporters after a campaign event at a sports apparel store in in the LA area community of South Gate, Whitman's first appearance in public in 10 days.
What does that mean? Whitman said she "physically guided her out of the conference room into a hallway."
Was that like how I "physically guided" a ballcarrier while playing football?
Whitman, whose temper at eBay was so well-known that she was known as "the good Meg" and "the evil Meg," says this event was "an anomaly."
Despite her disclosure, Whitman made another false claim, this one about how she supposedly worked so well with the employee after their physical altercation.
"Young Mi and I settled this professionally," Whitman said. "She came back to eBay and we worked together for nearly a year before I stepped down."
Actually, that's false. The employee took a few months off. Meanwhile, Whitman announced she was retiring from eBay. While she was still on the payroll, she was long gone. Off to Republican presidential politics, as it happens.
But in reality she was already preparing to run for governor, at the suggestion of her longtime mentor and current Republican presidential frontrunner to take on Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney.
This week, continuing her recent practice of seldom appearing in public while she tries in vain to shake those pesky nurses and hopes her dirty laundry gets ignored, Whitman made her first appearance since last week's deeply flawed attempt to put her expensive shoving incident behind her. But she acknowledged during a talk before a small crowd at a Japanese motorcycle dealership outside Sacramento that her charge that Brown wrecked the state budget during his first time as governor was, er, more complicated than her new TV attack ad makes it out to be.
She had to admit that the state used a large rainy day fund accumulated by Brown to bail out local governments in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 13, which dramatically cut property taxes for individuals and corporations.
Nevertheless, Whitman failed to acknowledge that the nation was also in a deep recession when Brown left office, presided over by one Ronald Reagan. Or that Brown's Republican successor, George Deukmejian, left a far larger deficit that led her campaign chairman, ex-Governor Pete Wilson, to enact the biggest tax hikes in California's history.
For his part, Brown appearing at the California Association of District Attorneys in Monterey, a supportive crowd given his record as California attorney general and Oakland mayor, addressed complaints about his youthful tenure as governor by saying: "For every hair I lost, I gained one brain cell."
Brown was in LA Wednesday, where he appeared on Good Day L.A. There Brown ripped Whitman's TV attack ad, which has been widely panned as inaccurate, with one web site charging trademark infringement. He mocked Whitman for her mocking of his experience.
"Were I a CEO and someone said, 'You know what, I've never been in this company, I never saw the product and I want to be a boss,' I'd say, 'Hey, why don't you start at the bottom and work your way up?'" Brown said. "That's the same way with government. You can't wake up one morning and say, 'Gee, I've got a billion dollars and I want to be governor.' You got to learn something because those people up in Sacramento are sharks."