Just nine days after she walloped rival Steve Poizner in the primary, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman launched two Spanish-language ads aimed at repairing some of the residual damage in the Latino community by sounding a lot less tough on illegal immigration.

The commercials, which ran Thursday during the World Cup match between Mexico and France and will continue running on three Spanish-language networks, portray the former eBay CEO as a friend to Latinos and a "different kind" of candidate.

One ad touts her track record at eBay. The other emphasizes that Whitman opposes the new Arizona law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants and that she opposed Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot initiative that, if it hadn't been overturned in federal court, would have denied services to illegal immigrants.

The ads are remarkably different in tone from the ads the Whitman campaign was running in the lead-up to the June 8 election. One of those had Whitman's campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, the champion of Proposition 187, promising that she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration.

At the time, Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, was using illegal immigration as a wedge issue to win over conservative votes.

At the GOP convention in Santa Clara in March, the Whitman campaign passed out fliers touting her opposition to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and her support for banning undocumented students from the University of California and California State University systems.

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the Whitman campaign, said the new ads are designed to reach out to Latino voters on two critical issues — education and jobs.

"Without an education, our Latino community has no future," Barajas said. "Without a job you can't buy clothes or house and feed your child."

Polls conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that Whitman's support among Latinos fell sharply as Poizner turned up the heat on illegal immigration and forced Whitman to sound tough on the issue. In its March survey, Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, led Whitman among Latinos 45 percent to 35 percent. By late May, Brown led Whitman 58 percent to 26 percent among Latinos.

"What she's doing here sounds smart," Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, a speechwriter for former Gov. Wilson, said of the ads. "She's directly addressing the fastest-growing segment of the California electorate" and she's pre-empting the coming Democratic attacks on the illegal immigration issue.

Although she's obviously being selective on which positions she raises in regard to the issue, "there's no flip-flopping or reversing of course here," Whalen said.

The California Democratic Party, however, issued a sharp statement on the ads:

"Apparently Meg Whitman forgot that we live in the age of 'the Internets' — ironic for someone who touts her eBay experience. She sincerely believes a Spanish language advertising buy is going to gloss over the fact that together with her mentor Pete Wilson, and her rival Steve Poizner, she engaged in the greatest Republican Party anti-immigrant hate-fest this side of the California-Arizona border."

Reversing some of the damage from the primary may be difficult.

Andrés Eugenio Jiménez, retired director of a UC Berkeley policy think tank, said the primary was extremely well-covered in the Spanish-language media — so he expects most Latinos will scrutinize her positions on the hot-button issue.

"Latino voters are very capable of sorting through the images and actual approach to policy," he said.

But at the least, he said, "she will at the least win herself greater name recognition among Latinos."

Whitman on Thursday spoke at a Los Gatos fundraiser for state Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who is running against Democrat John Laird for Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado's old state Senate seat.

Labor groups picketed the event, claiming that Wall Street and Big Oil were teaming up "in an attempted hostile corporate takeover of California."

Contact Ken McLaughlin at 408-920-5552.

TAILORING THE MESSAGE
What the Whitman campaign stressed during the primary:
  • Her opposition to "amnesty'' for illegal immigrants.
  • Her opposition to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
  • Her support of banning undocumented students from California's higher-education system.
    What the Whitman campaign is stressing to Latinos in new ads:
  • Her opposition to Arizona's tough new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
  • Her opposition to Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot measure that would have denied services to illegal immigrants.