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Former eBay executive Meg Whitman and California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner participated in the first debate for the California Republican gubernatorial primary Monday, March 15, 2010 in Costa Mesa, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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After months of dodging calls for debates, GOP front-runner Meg Whitman went toe-to-toe with Steve Poizner on Monday night in an Orange County showdown of former Silicon Valley executives that offered surprisingly little confrontation but appeared to answer one big question in the race for governor: Is Whitman ready for prime time?

The former eBay CEO seemed to be on Monday — if only for a limited Web audience. In her first debate, Whitman appeared confident and more than comfortable in the hourlong duel with Poizner from a theater in Costa Mesa.

Spelling out her vision for creating jobs, cutting spending and restoring the state's once-prized education system, Whitman went largely unchallenged and launched the most notable attack of the evening, depicting Poizner as a flip-flopper on immigration.

She also was steely in her response to how she would handle one of the state's most seasoned politicians in the general election: Democrat Jerry Brown. In her harshest words of the night, Whitman said she would offer a "stark contrast" against a career politician. "Everywhere he's gone there's been a record of failure," she said.

Despite trailing by more than 30 points in the polls, Poizner looked nothing like a desperate candidate determined to expose Whitman's political inexperience in a high-stakes debate. Instead, the state's Insurance Commissioner seemed content with leisurely telling his own story, twice recalling his year spent teaching at San Jose's Mount Pleasant High School.


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For all its anticipation, the debate sponsored by New Majority California, a Republican donor group, amounted to mostly excerpts of stump speeches instead of memorable political theater.

Each candidate spoke at length about turning around California, with Whitman saying her well-oiled managerial skills would rein in a state that is being strangled by what she called the power of public employee unions.

"I know how to balance budgets," Whitman said. "I know how to make the difficult trade-offs."

Poizner, a former valley entrepreneur who earned his fortune by putting GPS in cell phones, tried to portray himself as the only real conservative in the race, suggesting Whitman is too soft on illegal immigration and not willing to cut taxes across the board or take "big, bold, comprehensive reforms" to turn state government inside out.

Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, said a lack of a clear winner in Monday's debate was a win for the front-runner.

"The needle didn't move," Whalen said. "Nobody made a dramatic gain or a dramatic loss, so I guess you have to give it to Whitman."

On many issues, the two mostly echoed each other, especially when it came to education — both expressed support for vocational education, charter schools and more local control — and both came out swinging against the state's aggressive efforts to stop global warming emissions, which they said would only hurt business and kill jobs.

Whitman took the anti-regulatory theme one step further, calling for a one-year moratorium on all new regulations.

The most heated moment of the debate came more than a half-hour in, when Whitman called out Poizner for tacking to the right on immigration.

Poizner set up the exchange by bearing down hard on the issue, saying that he supported Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative aimed at reducing the flow of illegal migrants, while Whitman opposed it.

"These are wonderful people who come here," Poizner said. "But we have to stop illegal immigration. We have to turn the magnets off. You can't build a fence high enough."

In recent weeks, Poizner surprised many political analysts as he moved further and further to the right to get the attention of GOP primary voters who tend to lean strongly in that direction.

Whitman fought back with a "fact check," saying that "today he says he wants to turn off the magnets" that attract illegal immigrants, such as free health and social services. But, Whitman pointed out, when Poizner unsuccessfully ran for Assembly in 2004 he supported President Bush's comprehensive immigration reforms, which called for giving illegal immigrants with roots in this country a "path to legalization."

And just last week, Whitman said, Poizner told a Spanish-language newspaper that he supported the federal law that requires school districts to provide children here illegally with an education through the 12th grade.

"It's a complete about-face," Whitman said.

Poizner used the opportunity to chide Whitman for running an expensive negative ad campaign against him on radio and TV.

"They're nasty. They're wrong," Poizner said of the ads

"I know politics is a rough business, but we have to get the facts straight here," he said.

Poizner, who six years ago portrayed himself as a "100 percent abortion rights" candidate when he ran for an Assembly seat on the Peninsula, also attacked Whitman for supporting public funding of abortions.

The next debate will be broadcast on Comcast on May 2. It's currently the only other scheduled debate, and the location hasn't been decided. But Poizner, whom many are counting out of the race, used his final remarks Monday to relish another shot at Whitman: "Thanks, Meg, for a lively debate. We should do more of these."

Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5552.