SACRAMENTO — Fueled by an unprecedented $46 million spending spree in pursuit of the governor's seat, Meg Whitman's dominance in the polls got even more staggering over her Republican primary opponent, Steve Poizner, according to a newly published poll.
Whitman, the billionaire ex-CEO of eBay, now has a 61 percent-to-11 percent lead over Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner, with little more than 10 weeks to go before the June 8 primary, according to the Public Policy Institute of California survey released Wednesday.
Whitman also has secured a 5-point lead — 44 percent to 39 percent — over the only major Democratic candidate, Jerry Brown, the state attorney general and former two-term governor.
In a recent Field Poll, Whitman had a 49-point lead over Poizner and a 3-point lead over Brown.
"Together, these polls need to be a wake-up call, a clarion call to Democrats to get focused on the reality that the race is moving ahead of schedule into a general election phase," said Sean Clegg, campaign manager for the union-backed independent expenditure group, Level the Playing Field, which has taken on Whitman's campaign on a shoestring budget. "A lot of Democrats might not like to hear it, but that's the truth."
Since the beginning of the year, Whitman has blanketed the airwaves with nearly $28 million in advertising — with a nearly ubiquitous presence on radio, cable, and broadcast TV during popular shows such as "American Idol," and even the Feb. 7 Super Bowl.
A 50-point lead allows Whitman to soften her message for GOP primary voters and redirect her focus toward Brown, said Thad Kousser, a fellow with the Hoover Institution.
"The lead gives her the luxury of avoiding the kind of internecine warfare that Republican primary voters don't like," Kousser said. "She can spend her money getting her own story out and go negative on Brown all summer."
Poizner's campaign, however, is just starting its own television advertising campaign in what is expected to be a newly aggressive phase that taps the candidate's own wealth.
First statewide ad
Poizner, a multimillionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur before going into politics, had $14 million cash on hand from his self-funded campaign as recently as 10 days ago.
He released his first statewide ad Wednesday, to run on cable and broadcast TV, calling for tough laws against illegal immigrants, an issue that 68 percent of Republican voters believe is important, according to the Public Policy Institute survey.
"Meg is shattering spending records and carpet-bombing the airwaves, but the issue is that she's not providing positive solutions for California," said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Poizner. "The problem with Whitman's campaign is that every day they have to hold off from losing support while we'll be gaining support because Steve's the only candidate talking about solutions."
Whitman's campaign tried to downplay the significance of the lead.
"Polls will go up and polls will go down," said Tucker Bounds, the deputy campaign manager. "We're confident Meg will continue to earn the support of voters as they learn more about her record of success, ability to create jobs and her call for fiscal discipline."
Brown's campaign said they've always expected Whitman to pull ahead of everyone, given her vast personal wealth.
She has vowed to spend as much as $150 million to win.
"She's spent astronomical sums of money on TV and radio advertising, so it's taken her name ID from very low to reasonable," said Sterling Clifford, Brown's spokesman. "We expected all along it to be a close race, and what Meg Whitman's $46 million has done is to make it a close race. Jerry is committed to a thorough and thoughtful people-to-people campaign. ... Certainly, he's not going to be on TV as early or often as Whitman but I don't think you can equate a lack of TV with a lack of campaigning."
State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton dismissed the poll numbers, saying they merely reflect that Whitman is the only candidate voters have seen on TV so far.
"I'm not concerned," Burton said. "We don't have Meg Whitman money.
"But why would we take our limited resources and start talking to Meg Whitman before she even wins the primary?"
Brown still has some "structural" advantages, such as a long family history in California politics that dates to the two terms his father, Edmund "Pat" Brown, served as governor from 1958-1966, said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"So, Meg Whitman shouldn't start measuring the drapes in the governor's office yet," Pitney said. "But Brown definitely has a real fight ahead."
As for Poizner, Pitney said, "you don't want to write him off completely, but it's hard to see — unless something dramatic happens — what his path is to the nomination."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.