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Photo by Hector Amezcua

By Jack Chang
jchang@sacbee.com

Less than 18 months ago, Meg Whitman began her race for the governor's office as a political blank slate.

The 52-year-old had never held elected office before and wasn't connected to any cause. In fact, she had rarely voted in her adult life.

That didn't stop Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of online auction firm eBay, from vanquishing Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner on Tuesday night to win the Republican nomination for governor.

She and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina made history by becoming the first women to win the California Republican Party's nomination to the state's highest elected offices.

She told supporters that Sacramento politicians now face their worst nightmare: "Two businesswomen who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done."

Democrat Jerry Brown, who easily won his party's nomination for governor, reminded his backers that "I've done this before."

"If we pull together we can fix things," he said. "I know how Sacramento works, and more importantly, I know how it should work."

Whitman entered the race promising to spend as much as $150 million of her own money on her campaign. By primary day, she had put in $71 million and raised an additional $16 million.

According to her top consultants and others, she pulled it off with a potent mix of money and marketing, carefully crafting her message and rolling it out in an advertising blitz of a size never seen before in the state.

She also turned her inexperience into an asset, introducing herself to voters as a fresh face without a record her opponents could criticize.

Whitman also raised $87 million for the effort, including $71 million of her own money. She put in far more of her own money into the campaign than any self-financed candidate before her, and her campaign spent nearly four times more than Poizner's.

"From the beginning of the campaign, we built a plan and executed against it," said veteran Republican consultant Jeff Randle, a top Whitman advisor. "When the campaign got really ugly this year, we stuck to the plan. That's a complete reflection of who the candidate is."

San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston said Whitman's effort marked a milestone in the marriage of marketing and politics. Over her 30-year career, Whitman honed her skills as a branding expert at companies such as Disney and toymaker Hasbro.

That branding was clear early on in a Web video she released while announcing her intention to run in February 2009.

In it, she talks about her belief in "the power of many," which became the title of a memoir she released a year later. She pledged, "I refuse to let California fail," a line she repeated in almost every speech.

"They do test messages, they do focus groups and they go out in certain markets with different messages and see what works and what doesn't, and when they feel comfortable with the direction, they go full bore," Gerston said. "In terms of a statewide name, she had none. So she honed her themes, and her message has improved."

Whitman let it be known from the start she was willing to spend whatever it took to win the governor's office - as much as $150 million, she said. That intimidating figure was seen as a warning to would-be challengers and their donors to think twice before taking her on.

The threat effectively ended the campaign of former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, who admitted when he switched to the U.S. Senate race in January that his donors were weary of swimming against the tide of Whitman's money.

In one infamous instance, top Whitman consultant Mike Murphy warned Poizner that his candidate would spend at least $40 million "tearing up Steve" if he didn't get out of the race.

With the general election campaign starting, Whitman is on track to surpass her initial spending estimate.

"She's made a serious investment in California, and that's the way she looks at it," Randle said. "She knew the public employee unions and their Democratic allies would have a ton of money to spend."

Whitman also used her money to put together a small army of consultants, many of whom worked for Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson. The latter served as her campaign chairman.

Her most trusted advisers include GOP consultants Randle and Murphy and her longtime right-hand man Henry Gomez, a Democrat who played a similar role for her at eBay.

"It is the Noah's ark of campaigns," said Democratic consultant Andrew Acosta. "There is two of everybody - pollsters, multiple communications people."

With Whitman's war chest supplying endless resources, that team rewrote election year rules.

Her paid advertising campaign began earlier than that of any previous statewide candidate had before - nine months before the primary. She also launched negative TV ads about Poizner before his spots had even hit the airwaves.

"Meg figured early on that you either define yourself or someone else will define you," Randle said. "We were prepared for a 100 percent attack strategy from Poizner, and we needed to defend against that."

By all accounts, Whitman quickly tackled a steep learning curve.

That included taking a crash course in state government throughout 2008 courtesy of Randle and others.

"She had a voracious appetite to learn and understand policies and campaigns," said GOP consultant Adam Mendelsohn, who worked with Whitman on the McCain campaign and later advised her until early 2009.

"She was very interested in all the facets of this, the policies and media piece of it."

With the primary behind her, Whitman will now square off against one of the state's most experienced and unpredictable politicians, Democrat Jerry Brown, who's running a lean, largely improvised campaign that's in many ways the opposite of Whitman's.

Brown and his allies will try to make Whitman's inexperience an issue, Mendelsohn said.

"She's going to have to articulate how a novice can steer us through this," he said.



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