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Republican Party pressuring Whitman to debate at convention

There is a move afoot among California Republican Party leaders to pressure Meg Whitman, the frontrunner for the party's nomination for governor, into a debate against rival Steve Poizner at the state GOP convention next month. The state party's board members, who are scheduled to discuss the issue in a conference call Friday afternoon, are weighing whether to require all candidates for governor and Senate to participate in a debate at the convention -- and if they refuse, to deny them the ability to address the convention delegates in any other forum.

The effort to box in Whitman is being pushed by party leaders who have backed Poizner, the state insurance commissioner who is lagging far behind the free-spending former EBay chief in recent polls. Poizner has been publicly criticizing Whitman for months for declining so far to debate him, and if she refuses at the convention, it would offer him new ammunition. "We've had debates like this in the past," said Mike Spence, a Republican executive committee member who supports Poizner. "This is not unusual at the convention. What's unusual is having a major candidate not want to do it."

But some in the party say it makes no sense to try to embarrass or antagonize Whitman, who has given $250,000 to the state party and has supporters with big wallets who may be reluctant to donate for voter registration and other Republican efforts. "The last thing you want is to get in an argument or a debate with someone who's 30 points up and ends up being your nominee and they've got deep pockets," said one Republican operative. "Is all that worth it for a press release?"

The convention runs March 12-14 in Santa Clara. The Whitman and Poizner campaigns are in talks for a debate on March 15, the day after the convention, in Orange County. Tucker Bounds, Whitman's spokesman, said she is "prepared and excited to debate Steve Poizner" that day. He declined to comment on why her camp has been resisting a debate at the convention. But he said the party had not formally invited her to one, and "we are evaluating every invitation that comes in the door."

Jarrod Agen, Poizner's spokesman, said the party had reached out to Whitman's representatives behind the scenes and been rebuffed.

"It is a slap in the face to Republican delegates," Agen said.

-- Michael Rothfeld in Sacramento

 
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