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Republican rivals for governor spin, but agree that race is closing

May 5, 2010 |  3:41 pm

The spin war is on among Republican candidates for governor, but both campaigns agree on at least (and probably only) one thing: Steve Poizner has narrowed the huge lead Meg Whitman once held in polls for the June 8 primary.

The two sides staged dueling conference calls with reporters Wednesday to talk about their internal polling, which, as Whitman strategy Mike Murphy cautioned, should be taken with a few grains of salt, given that they are administered by people with agendas (like pleasing their employers). The Poizner campaign scheduled its call first, for 1:30 p.m.; Whitman's aides then launched a preemptive strike, announcing a 1 p.m. call with less than an hour's notice (a.k.a., the "pre-buttal").

The upshot: Poizner's new internal poll, by Public Opinion Strategies, put Whitman's lead – 50 points in public surveys in March – at 10 points, 38% to 28%.

"This is a remarkable turnaround in this campaign, and it shows, I mean, how fluid this electorate is, and how much Meg Whitman is losing support," said Neil Newhouse, Poizner's pollster.

Murphy said preliminary results from a Whitman campaign poll now in progress show the lead still in "double digits" -- though he refused to specify how low the margin had sunk. Whitman, the former chief of EBay, has spent tens of millions of dollars on her campaign and launched attack ads on Poizner months ago. But Murphy said her aides had expected the dynamics to change once Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, launched his counterattack, which he has in recent weeks. Whitman's ties to Goldman Sachs, including her special access to initial public offering stocks that she sold at a huge profit, have also been the focus of his ads and numerous news stories.

About her once-gargantuan advantage, Murphy said that although it was fun "to laugh around campaign headquarters about 50-point leads, we never took any of these polls seriously at the time."

Consultants for the rivals then hammered at their talking points.

Whitman's: that Poizner is a flip-flopping liberal masquerading as a conservative who is too conservative (or at least acting that way) to win in a general election against Democrat Jerry Brown, while she is a fresh face with business experience whom voters will embrace. And that Poizner's many attacks will annoy voters.

Poizner's: that Whitman is a faux Republican who was a shiny new penny that drew some initial voter interest, but will follow the traditional pattern in California of rich businesspeople who run for a high office without any political experience and lose. And that her many attacks will annoy voters.

Questions for the month ahead, to mix sports metaphors: Is Whitman like the inexperienced marathoner who went too fast in the first half of the race only to fade away before the finish? Or is Poizner like the basketball team that mounts a huge comeback to get within three points in the fourth quarter and then is so exhausted from the effort that it loses by 10?

-- Michael Rothfeld in Sacramento

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