California Republicans are locked in a fierce debate over whether gubernatorial hopeful Steve Poizner this week made a fool of himself — or a name for himself.

But they agree on one thing: The GOP primary took a dramatic, critical turn Monday when Poizner publicly accused a top adviser to opponent Meg Whitman of trying to strong-arm him out of the race and offering him a political bribe.

Some GOP stalwarts said Tuesday that Poizner's performance at a Sacramento news conference — which some described as an embarrassing "meltdown" — spelled the end of his bid to become governor. Others said he came across as a scrappy and principled fighter who won't easily be squashed by the former eBay CEO's lavishly funded campaign.

"Steve now has an opportunity to play the victim and talk about being bullied," said Hoover Institution senior fellow Bill Whalen, former chief speechwriter for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "But it also starts the drumbeat about whether he should stay in the race."

Some political analysts said Poizner's tactic might work — and might represent his only chance to overcome his nearly 4-1 disadvantage in the polls.

"He's trying to shake up the dynamic of the campaign because the arrow is pointing toward a Whitman victory," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State University. "Steve Poizner is a very smart man, I know that much. And when you're way behind, you have to take risks and throw the long ball."

Matthew Cunningham of the popular Red County blog was less charitable.

"My first thought was that he's acting like a weenie — like the kid at school who goes to the principal when the cool kid in class says something bad about him," Cunningham said. "When a candidate has a meltdown like that in public, it looks like the beginning of the end."

Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner, argued that Whitman adviser Mike Murphy breached an ethical boundary by reaching out to Poizner staff members in an attempt to push him aside.

In an e-mail Jan. 27 to Poizner's pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, Murphy said if Poizner bowed out, Whitman would support a Poizner bid for U.S. Senate in 2012. If he stayed in the race, Murphy wrote, the Whitman campaign was prepared to spend upward of $40 million "tearing up Steve."

Poizner responded by scheduling a news conference, at which he announced he was sending a copy of Murphy's e-mail to the FBI, the state attorney general, the U.S. attorney, the California secretary of state and the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Murphy launched a counterattack, calling Poizner's allegations "strange" and saying he was starting to worry about the candidate's "mental condition."

It became obvious Tuesday that the bizarre dust-up was playing into the hands of Democrats.

"This extortion attempt is only the latest display of arrogance and lack of character on candidate Whitman's part," California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said in a statement. "This is clearly someone who is used to having things her own way and has come to rely on her vast wealth to buy off any and all opposition."

And many state Republican officials are starting to worry that the nasty tone of the campaign will damage the eventual GOP victor's chances against state Attorney General Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic nominee.

"From Day One, I've been concerned that the candidates not concentrate on tearing each other down while Jerry Brown runs by himself," said Tom Del Beccaro, the state's GOP vice chairman.

But other Republican officials aren't as worried.

"I think that vibrant primaries are good for the Republican Party," said Jon Fleischman, the GOP's regional vice chairman for Southern California. "Frankly, the two candidates are going to get more negative than anyone would like, but one of the most important questions is whether they're committed to endorsing each other. If that's the case, I think it's going to be just fine."

Fleischman cited California's gubernatorial contest in 1998, the year that the party virtually anointed then-Attorney General Dan Lungren.

"Everyone cleared the field for him in the primary, and then he lost by 20 points to Gray Davis in November," Fleischman said.

Poizner, meanwhile, spent the day in Southern California bashing Whitman for avoiding the press and debates.

Jarrod Agen, Poizner's spokesman, noted that Whitman is refusing to debate at the California Republican Party's convention in Santa Clara next month. "It's all in line with Meg Whitman's unwillingness to be judged," Agen said.

He insisted that Poizner made the right move in disclosing Murphy's e-mail. "I think voters are going to be outraged they're bartering a Senate nomination," Agen said. "Meg Whitman has never been elected to anything. She's not in a position to offer up the Republican nomination for Senate."

Sarah Pompei, Whitman's spokeswoman, said: "We're done responding to the hyperventilation coming from the Poizner campaign."

Contact Ken McLaughlin at 408-920-5552.