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Whitman - nuance or flip-flop on issues?

San Francisco Chronicle, 8/2/10

By Carla Marinucci
San Francisco Chronicle
August 2, 2010

Has California Republican Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who says she'll bring a fresh approach to state government, become precisely what she insists she is not - a calculating politician who changes positions and straddles the issues depending on the audience?

Some examples that have both conservatives and liberals buzzing in recent weeks:

-- Whitman just spent millions on California Spanish-language media to advertise her view on the nation's most controversial immigration bill: "NO to the Arizona law." But on Wednesday, she said in an interview with the conservative Talk Radio Network's "America's Morning News" that she would "let the Arizona law stand."

-- Before the June GOP primary, Whitman called California's landmark climate change bill, AB32, a "dangerous job killer" that the state can't afford and urged a suspension. But her spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said recently that Whitman "supports the goals" of the bill.

-- Whitman lambasted GOP challenger Steve Poizner for not mandating "cost-saving furloughs" for state workers, but recently said she opposed those furloughs. Pompei said Whitman believes she has a more "permanent" plan to save money.

With the political zig-zagging and nuanced statements, Whitman has embraced "the art of politics itself," said San Jose State political science Professor Larry Gerston. "Someone says, 'I'm for it. But I don't like the way they're doing it. And I would do it better. But I can't tell you how - but I will.' "

With polls showing the gubernatorial race between Whitman and state Attorney General Jerry Brown in a virtual dead heat - despite Whitman's record-breaking estimated $100 million personal investment to date - the efforts of the GOP candidate to shade and recraft her positions underscore a critical challenge in the final 100 days of the general election.

The candidate, who endured a combative primary with Poizner, must maintain her appeal to the conservative grass roots, her party's most loyal voters, while broadening her appeal to independents and Latinos.

Rob Stutzman, Whitman's senior political adviser, said last week that Whitman was "not walking back" on her core values - and argued the campaign has simply entered a new phase.

"It's been a year and a half (campaign) and so much of that was focused on the primary," he said. "So now there is a need to try and talk to voters about what we think are the most important issues to them - and the voting population has segments to it, and different demographics."

But "she has the luxury of having taken positions, even in the primary, that she doesn't have to change for a general election," he said. "She won a huge mandate in the GOP primary in spite of being attacked."

Stutzman also noted that Democrats who critique Whitman for flip-flops know the turf well; Brown has perfected the skill for 40 years in politics, he said.

"Jerry opposed Prop. 13 (the 1978 property tax initiative) ... and he got his butt kicked by the voters - then woke up and embraced it," Stutzman said. "If Jerry had to go through a primary, he'd be doing contortions right now."

But Democrats counter that Whitman's campaign has been seriously damaged as she changes positions - particularly on immigration issues, where they say she appears to be pandering and waffling.

"If you keep walking stuff back, you step right off a cliff," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who advises "Level the Playing Field 2010," an independent expenditure group helping Brown's campaign.

"You would never get away with this in a presidential campaign because you'd be under significant scrutiny for changing your answers to appeal to a particular audience," said Lehane, a former White House spokesman in the Clinton administration. "It goes to a core character issue. Ultimately, what do you stand for?"

That's what conservative radio hosts John and Ken, with a million listeners at Southern California station KFI, asked as they scathingly dismissed Whitman's positions as "garbage" and urged a grassroots revolt against her immigration stance.

Their beef: Pre-primary, Whitman said she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration and campaigned alongside former Gov. Pete Wilson. But recently, she wrote a Spanish-language opinion piece, saying her views on immigration were similar to those of Democrat Brown.

"We have the resources to communicate ... to Spanish-language media, which has huge audiences in the state, and we are not going to apologize for that," Stutzman said. "Just because shock radio jocks have to have immigration as part of their shtick, it does not mean there is erosion in the GOP base."

But author and veteran strategist Ruth Sherman, who advises CEOs and politicians on political communications issues, warns that in the age of 24/7 blogs and relentless Internet coverage, politicians need to beware before they shift positions.

"It's very difficult to straddle both sides of the issue," she said. "Nuance is a polite euphemism for talking out of both sides of their mouths."

And reaching different audiences is also a potential pitfall.

"Conservative white people aren't listening to Spanish-language radio, but (the comments made there) are being reported in a moment's time," Sherman said. "That wasn't the case just a few years ago."

Gerston, the political science professor, said Whitman has clearly changed focus - and message - in her first campaign.

She emerged in 2009 with "a freshness" and didn't appear scripted, and "you could almost excuse the mistakes," he said.

Today, however, "she has become a polished politician. She is now trying to subtly crawl, inch by inch, to the middle ... and few people are able to pull it off."

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