SACRAMENTO — Meg Whitman has begun to finesse the fallout over her failure to vote for 28 years with the rationale that she was a busy mom supporting a husband and growing her business.

However, lasting damage already may be settling in for the former eBay CEO, whose gubernatorial campaign has suddenly hit a rough patch.

Whitman's voting record has become an object of derision across the state and country — analyzed on CNN, trashed in national political columns and now being mocked in a YouTube ad posted by Steve Poizner, the Insurance Commissioner who looks to cut into her lead in the polls for the Republican gubernatorial sweepstakes.

The ad shows a montage of images from past Republican campaigns that she had failed to vote for, overlayed by a woman's voice saying, "For 28 years, Meg Whitman was eligible to vote. But for 28 years, she never voted. Not once.

"She didn't vote for one president, senator, congressman or governor. Not President Reagan. Not President George H.W. Bush. Not John McCain in 2000 or President George W. Bush in 2000. She didn't vote for Pete Wilson or to recall Gray Davis."

The litany of past GOP campaigns is used to appeal to the outrage of Republican primary voters who expect some loyalty to the party, political observers said.

"It gives pause to activists," said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State. "The question it raises for them is how good a Republican is she if she doesn't vote for 28 years and didn't register as a Republican until 2007? They'd say, 'What does that tell me about her commitment to our cause?' You don't want to offend activists by appearing nonchalant and uncommitted to their cause. That's where it could hurt."

In addition, the imagery of a billionaire CEO who showed such indifference to the political process adds further texture to her problem, they added.

"To the degree to which voting is somehow beneath her or that billionaires don't have to vote, there are ways that an opposition candidate could make this have resonance with voters," said Corey Cook, political science professor at the University of San Francisco.

Whitman, 53, had never registered to vote until 2002 and did not vote in the 2003 recall or the 2005 special election, according to a Sacramento Bee story. She apologized at a news conference last weekend during the Republican state party convention, saying "my voting record is inexcusable." However, when asked repeatedly why she hadn't, she said, "I've said what I'm going to say about it."

The next day, she recalibrated her response, telling the Associated Press, "I was focused on raising a family, on my husband's career, and we moved many, many times."

She added that it was when she became CEO of eBay that she became more aware of how businesses were affected by political decisions.

"When I came to eBay, what I saw was the incredible difficulties that government created for small business ... inspired individuals who created business who got slapped down by taxation, by bureaucracy and regulation," she said.

However, her reply to a KGO caller's question Wednesday is helping to keep the controversy alive.

When asked whether she had voted before 2002, she said, "So the answer is that I don't think the Sacramento Bee article is entirely accurate, but actually it doesn't really matter because my voting record is not good."

The Poizner campaign seized on the comment, pressing her to reveal what she thinks was inaccurate. Jarrod Agen, a campaign spokesman, said the issue is not going away.

"She's had a complete lack of transparency with voters and the press on this," he said. "She's told multiple conflicting stories as to the why and when that that creates a problem because she's not being honest. This will last until they answer the question of did she vote before 2002 and, if not, why?"

Poizner's "unending fascination" with Whitman's voting history "has become an obvious attempt to distract from Commissioner Poizner's previous support for higher taxes and his failure to make any reform in Sacramento," Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said.

Whitman's voting record resonates because "people do think it's odd," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State. "It calls into question her commitment and character. They wonder why does she want to get into politics when she didn't show any interest in it up until now?"

One possibility that the Whitman campaign can only hope for is that her nonvoting past can help buttress her outsider image — if that is what they want in a climate that's so unforgiving to typical politicians, said Melissa Michelson, Cal State East Bay political science professor.

"If you really want somebody not tainted by politics," she said jokingly, "here's the woman for you."

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.