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Meg Whitman vs. Jerry Brown

Last week ushered in a volcanic eruption in Iceland; a white fireball in the Midwestern skies; and a deadly earthquake in Mexico.

However, none of these compare to the ferocity engulfing the California governor’s race.

Attorney General and former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is squaring off against former eBay CEO and Republican Meg Whitman. Few outside the Steve Poizner campaign think he will survive the primary.

While Brown should be the favorite in the race, due to experience, a $17 million war chest, a frugal campaign, and registration that favors any Democrat in California; a recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll found Whitman leading Brown by 3 points—44 percent to 41 percent.

How did this happened and is the race over, already?

The general election season doesn’t start until after the June primary, but the Governor’s race may be over before the fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Whitman’s strategy -- learned from decades of work in the ruthless corporate world—is to plan, execute, and overwhelm the competition. And always recalibrate.

Whitman has already plunked down almost $60 million of her own money and is willing to spend “whatever it takes.”

A glimpse of her strategy against Brown, already in place, can be seen in the steamroller primary that has thus far trounced Poizner—another high-tech billionaire.

How did she achieve a 40-point lead over him?

First, she assembled a very expensive and very experienced group of political advisers.

Next, she stayed away from the press until she mastered the “wonkish” side of political jargon.

Then she introduced herself to the California public via massive television, radio, and print buys. She labeled herself (successful CEO of a household business brand) before either Poizner or Brown got in the ring.

Whitman garnered great press and magazine coverage on the national stage; traveled the state and spoke to friendly audiences in order to polish her performance; and, except for ignoring California’s political media too long, made almost no missteps.

Things that might have tripped up a less prepared candidate have yet to ensnare Whitman.

Brown asked for her tax returns. She raised the ante by agreeing to release her returns for the last 25 years—on the condition that Brown do the same. Silence ensued.

He criticized her for failing to vote in several California elections. She countered that she was a working mother, wife, CEO, with her head buried in work. Empathy and understanding followed.

And Brown complained that Whitman wants “to buy the election.” This year, no one cares as long as they aren’t paying for it. Reasoning goes thus: anyone will to plunk down $60-$100 million dollars to run a near bankrupt state has “manned up and put her money where her mouth is.”

And finally, possibly frustrated by the poll that shows the political novice Whitman ahead of him, and still gaining ground, Brown addressed a hall full of Democratic friendly labor unions and told them to “go on the attack,” because he couldn’t. Wisely, he understands the perils of verbal putdowns against women.

Brown’s stealth campaign

While Brown decided to wage a stealth campaign (much like the colonial Americans who picked off the marching British Redcoats by shooting from the safety of treetops), he—like Poizner—may have waited too long.

He was right to keep a low profile in acknowledgement that voters’ anger and the “fatigue factor” with all politicians–especially incumbents weighs against him.

Thus, Brown postponed the official announcement of his candidacy until the last minute in hopes that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, would drop out and thus avoid a costly and potentially damaging Democratic primary. That worked.

Next Brown decided to stay below the radar and reasoned that the Republicans Whitman and Poizner would destroy each other. That didn’t work.

Instead, it gave Whitman the time to identify herself with the voters and roll over Poizner in the process.

Now Brown is scrambling to find some footing; the latest effort—going after a state college for not disclosing the contract and funding source for a Palin speech. Silly.

Mixed results at best.

However, Brown demonstrated his real “insider” advantage when the California Chamber of Commerce ran commercials defining him as anti-Prop 13 and a tax and spend liberal.

A few phone calls from Brown and his wife, Anne Gust, former CEO of the GAP, caused the Chamber to pull the ads—quickly.

That is the kind of experience that could help the state.

Brown knows where the levers of power are. He knows who to call, what to say, how to browbeat, and where to lead.

There is no need for on-the-job training for Brown, especially since he served two terms as governor, as attorney general and most importantly, as mayor of Oakland.

That is the experience from which he can draw a compelling “narrative” about how he can lead California out of its political and financial morass, without shoving more people into the streets without homes or jobs.

Problem is, he hasn’t shined even a moonbeam on any path to state solvency.

Los Angles Times political columnist George Skeleton argues, Brown’s problem is that he “doesn’t have a very strong message.”

While Whitman is forced to be vague; cut 40,000 state government jobs (mostly through attrition); lop off billions in state administrative overhead costs; and reduce public employee pension and health benefits; Brown should force a debate before she levels him like she has Poizner.

Brown can submit a list of specifics, as Skeleton suggests. He knows the numbers; knows the players; and should knows the path forward. Keeping such details to himself only provides Whitman with more valuable time.

Rolling out ideas and specifics can re-define Whitman in a manner more enlightening that her theme “run California like a business.”

California has some of the most intelligent voters in the country; a majority of the greatest top 15 Universities in the nation; inventive high-tech geniuses; and an agriculture, health care, and working base second to none.

Treat the voters with respect and they will return it. Treat them to pablum and talking points and they will “vote the bums out”—which hurts Brown more than Whitman.

For Brown’s stealth candidacy to defeat Whitman’s shock and awe approach, three things are paramount:

• Brown must discipline his drifty monologues. Watch a Whitman performance to see the ABC’s of simple, clear, digestible answers. Not brilliant, but not meandering. Her hidden weapon is a great speaking voice that does not come across in her commercials, but will in a debate.

• Then, and only then, Brown needs to come out from hiding and push the race forward. Challenge both Whitman and Poizner to a debate before the primary. Stealth is no good without surprise.

• Stop chasing Sarah Palin. She can embarrass you. She snared the President when he took the bait and opined “last time I checked Sarah Palin was no expert in nuclear strategy.”

To which she answered, … “with all the vast nuclear experience he acquired as a community organizer, a part time Senator and a full time candidate, all that experience and still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.”

Obama opened himself to a sucker punch. Lesson: Stay away from Sarah Barracuda.

• Stay on the frugal side and hope fate provides you with an opening.

• Use Newsom (now running for lieutenant governor) as a foil. His San Francisco friendly ideas are out of step with the rest of the state. When you disagree, say so.

• The greatest peril is the unsustainable math on the state workers’ pensions and health benefits. Specificity, not babble, is required. Stop all triple and double dipping—even your own.

• Speak from the heart and you will always be eloquent. Speak from the philosophy book and you will lose the election.

It is not too late for “stealth” to overcome “shock and awe,” but one thing is certain.

California is ground zero for the next great tumbler in politics and will have more action than volcanoes, fireballs or earthquakes.

And the state is blessed to have such superb candidates wanting to help.

The “Clash of These Titans” promises to outdraw the movie.

Colleen M. O’Connor is a former college history professor, the director of the “Faces of San Diego 2000″ family photographic history project and co-editor of Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey.  She is an SDNN political columnist and can be reached at CoConnor15x@Yahoo.com