SACRAMENTO — Ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman's $19 million spending spree has apparently bought her a brand that practically puts her on an even playing field with state Attorney General Jerry Brown's superior name recognition.
The Republican candidate has pulled to within five points of Brown in a head-to-head matchup in the governor's race, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey released Wednesday.
With less than 10 months to go before the general election, Brown, a former two-term governor, holds a 41 percent to 36 percent advantage among likely voters over Whitman. Only a month ago, he led Whitman by six points, suggesting that Whitman's constant presence on the airwaves since fall is having an impact.
In a Field Poll released last week, Brown held a 10-point lead over Whitman, half of the 21-point lead he had over her in October. "If you spend $19 million and you're the only one advertising, you can buy yourself something with that," said Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a Republican candidate who continued to lag behind Whitman, 41 percent to 11 percent, and in a head-to-head matchup with Brown, 44 percent to 29 percent.
Whitman's campaign was measured in its response to the findings.
"We know there will be many polls during the course of this race, and we're confident that on Election Day in both June and November Californians will choose Meg's leadership to create jobs, cut spending and improve
Though he is considered the Democrats' likely nominee, Brown has yet to declare his candidacy and has husbanded his resources as Republicans have launched their campaigns. His slim lead over Whitman is hardly a surprise, said Democrats, some of whom conceded that he could eventually fall behind by the June 8 primary.
"Here you have a candidate who's spent $19 million and a guy who hasn't even declared and he's five points ahead," said Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. "That speaks to the enduring brand Jerry Brown brings to the table."
Brown's newly named campaign manager, Steve Glazer, said he expects "the race to be very competitive." It wouldn't hurt Brown's cause, he added, if Poizner begins to cut into Whitman's presence in the primary with ad buys of his own.
"If Poizner has the money, and it appears he does, he's in the position to make the primary race very competitive and very quickly," Glazer said.
At the California Newspaper Publishers Association conference in Sacramento on Wednesday, Poizner said a media blitz of his own would come "soon. Mainly it will be about me, but there will be plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast."
If Poizner begins to successfully engage Whitman, Brown will have an open shot at defining himself and taking on who he considers to be his most threatening fall opponent, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"If Brown doesn't draw a primary opponent, he's going to be forced to think about whether he should spend money this spring to position himself for the general election," Schnur said. "He has an opportunity to define himself, but also he has a chance to take Republicans down a peg or two."
Some Democrats are concerned that Brown will wait too long before he starts spending money as he calculates how to contend with Whitman's vast wealth. Whitman, a billionaire, has said she could spend as much as $150 million to win.
"He needs to start ramping up his own campaign," said Robert Cruickshank, public policy director for the Courage Campaign, a liberal advocacy group. "He's indicated he's not going to spend a lot of money and hope Poizner can beat up on Whitman (during the primary). But I don't think it's going to work that way. Even if Poizner attacks Whitman, I don't think that negates the impact of Whitman's attacks on Brown."
At some point, Whitman will have to decide whether she can turn her attention away from Poizner and toward Brown during the primary, Schnur said.
"If Poizner doesn't turn this into a competitive primary, Brown has to prepare for Whitman going after him before the June primary," Schnur said. "If Poizner does make it a competitive primary, Brown's got a clear field."
San Jose Mercury News reporters Denis T. Theriault and Ken McLaughlin contributed to this story.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.
Jerry Brown: 41 percent
Meg Whitman: 36 percent
Jerry Brown: 44 percent
Steve Poizner: 29 percent
Meg Whitman: 41 percent
Steve Poizner: 11 percent
Source: Public Policy Institute of California survey, taken from Jan. 12-19, based on questions asked of 1,223 likely voters. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus
3 percentage points.