04/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Selling Meg Whitman: Glitches Emerge in the Billionaire's Plan To Acquire the California Governorship

What would Don Draper do?

The selling of Meg Whitman has been underway for more than a year, the billionaire ex-eBay CEO and public affairs novice assiduously promoting herself as a potential governor of the nation's largest state even as she dodges debates and substantive interviews. After making no public appearances in California in January, but venturing back East last week to launch her CEO memoir, "The Power of Many," she's appearing up and down the state this week to promote her book, if not to discuss the pressing issues of the state she would presume to govern.

Meanwhile, her eighth radio ad to date (featuring her campaign chair, former Governor Pete Wilson) blankets the state, as the others have for months. All is "on plan" in the selling of Meg Whitman. Or is it?

Meg Whitman promoted her book and her candidacy in this softball interview last week on Fox News.

There's just one thing. Television.

Well-informed sources tell me that Whitman and her panoply of high-paid consultants are having trouble coming up with a way to introduce the would-be governor on television to her hoped-for constituents.

In January, Whitman's consultants presented 22 potential introductory TV ads to a focus group in Sacramento. The ads didn't fly. The reaction to Whitman's TV presentation was particularly problematic with women.

The problems? Whitman was not mediagenic. But the surface problem was merely the surface of the problem. Whitman came off as cold, controlling, scripted -- especially among women voters, who were kept behind for further questioning.

Meg Whitman, whose involvement in public affairs has been so slight that she's barely voted, sang the praises of controversial environmental advocate Van Jones, who she met on a cruise ship, last May. This year she wants to roll back California's landmark climate change program.

What to do? That's certainly a matter for her roster of high-priced aides and advisors. (Whitman spent well over $5 million on consultants last year. That's a large portion of the nearly $20 million she's reported spending, and does not include the large sums unreported before that.)

But the reason why Whitman comes off as scripted and controlling may be a reason why Whitman's consultants are having trouble playing Don Draper to her Lucky Strikes.

I'm told on good authority that strategy conference calls with Whitman are themselves highly controlled and scripted. When a conference call with the veteran marketing executive is scheduled, her consultants are scheduled to a conference call of their own the day before. It's a pre-conference call, at which the topics and points to be discussed with Whitman are agreed on in advance.

Meg Whitman's business mentor, Mitt Romney, sings her praises. Whitman was national finance co-chair of the Romney for President campaign and national co-chair of the McCain for President campaign.

When the actual strategy conference call with Whitman takes place the next day, and an advisor thinks of something to say that isn't in the pre-arranged script for the call, he or she has to message top aide Jeff Randle. Who then is to message Whitman's consigliere, Henry Gomez, for permission to raise the stray point.

Whitman's spokesperson, Sarah Pompei, hasn't commented on this, perhaps because the Whitman campaign has its hands full with the controversy over its unsuccessful efforts to force Republican rival Steve Poizner from the primary race. More about that in a moment.

The focus group reaction to Whitman's television presentations -- that she is scripted and controlling -- plays out not only in the internal dynamic of her campaign but also in her interactions with the press.

Whitman has said that she believes in branding, not press relations, in selling a product. In working her brand to sell herself to the people of California as their possible next governor, she's viewed knowledgeable journalists as something to be avoided.

Despite promising to debate last fall, Whitman has skipped all debates to date. And her press conferences, few as they have been, have been disastrous.

Whitman dodges questions from journalists knowledgeable about California issues, instead preferring conservative outlets like Fox News and the business press and softball questions about her book on The Today Show.

Meg Whitman speaks at a San Diego business awards luncheon last fall.

Watching her interview with Neil Cavuto last week on Fox News, it was striking how little she deviated from a few bullet points from her incessant radio ads. Not to mention how unchallenged everything she said went by Cavuto.

In contrast, Whitman's Republican rival, Insurance Commissioner Poizner, has regular free-flowing discussions of the troubled state's issues with reporters and others. And the Democratic favorite, Jerry Brown -- who according to the constantly polling Whitman is 10 points ahead of her -- frequently banters and jousts with reporters on the phone and at his appearances as California's attorney general.

Given all this, it shouldn't be a surprise that Whitman engaged in a very messy and unsuccessful attempt to clear the Republican primary field, something which Brown succeeded in doing on the Democratic side last fall.

Meg Whitman, launching her book tour last week in New York, scored this remarkably fawning interview with NBC's Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

Yesterday, Poizner, who devised mobile phone tracking technology, charged that Whitman's consultant Mike Murphy broke the law by threatening him with personal destruction if he files for governor and offering him the inducement of a U.S. Senate nomination if he drops out of the race.

Poizner produced an e-mail from Murphy to one of Poizner's top hands threatening to spend $40 million assassinating Poizner's character if he files next month for governor. Alternatively, he offered Poizner the 2012 Republican nomination against Senator Dianne Feinstein, reasoning that "2012 could be a good GOP year and DiFi will be 78 or 79 years old."

Which is not an especially clever thing to say about California's senior senator. Not that Murphy or Whitman have the power to deliver on that promise.

As I'm reminded of Mr. Dooley's ancient dictum that "politics ain't beanbag," I don't know that this is actually illegal.

I do know that it is certainly, let's say, unwise.

I called Murphy -- the ex-John McCain advisor fired by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as his chief political strategist after the 2005 special election debacle that nearly ended his governorship -- on Murphy's mobile phone for comment. But he didn't pick up.

Needless to say, Poizner, who said that various threatening phone calls have also been made, is not dropping out of the race. In fact, I expect him to be on the air in the not terribly distant future.

Stupid rumors frequently flood what remains of California's media and political community, and are credulously passed on. One is that Poizner is about to drop out. Obviously not.

Another is that Feinstein is going to run for governor. Obviously not.

Oh, and needless to say, if you are going to threaten someone, the Murphy technique really is not how you do it.

Unless you want the opposite effect.

Here's a link to Poizner's letter -- which went to the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and (amusingly) Attorney General Jerry Brown -- and Murphy's extremely foolish missive.

Sometimes the most controlling personalities, and political operations, are those which are not in control.

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