California Republicans are freely violating the 11th Commandment as they hit the stretch run of the primary campaign for governor, and there’s growing evidence that they might break Number 6, as well.

It was Ronald Reagan, during his first campaign for governor in 1966, who tacked a political amendment onto the Old Testament Decalogue: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” he famously said.

In the 2010 campaign for that office, however, the top contenders for the GOP nomination have slashed and bashed each other so fiercely that they long ago toppled the Gipper’s venerable play-nice rule and now seem close to dumping that old “shalt not kill” guideline, too.

With more than a week to go before the June 8 election, wannabe governors Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have already collectively spent more than $100 million — most of it their own money — bombarding each other with airwave attacks about character and ideology. The two mega-millionaire moderates both have tacked sharply to the political right during the campaign, the better to woo the arch-conservative voters who dominate the Republican primary electorate.

Meg Whitman
Paul Wellman

After building a 50-point lead, former eBay CEO Whitman has watched most of it disappear under six weeks of withering fire from Insurance Commissioner Poizner. The latest independent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed her leading only by single digits, 38-29 percent, with 31 percent undecided. The race remains volatile, though, and Whitman said in an interview in Santa Barbara last week she can “feel the momentum” shifting back to her.

After lying in the weeds for most of the campaign, Poizner let loose a volley of TV attacks against Whitman as the two emerged from an April debate in which he triumphed. Fueled by about $25 million of his Silicon Valley fortune, Poizner’s 30-second spot barrage whacked Whitman on her financial ties to the scandal-stained investment bank Goldman Sachs, her past campaign contributions to Senator Barbara Boxer, and her truly terrible voting record, while presenting her for good measure as the morphed-face twin of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a most unpopular figure among Republicans these days.

Steve Poizner
Paul Wellman (file)

But it was Poizner’s sustained assault on the issue of illegal immigration that gained the most traction, as he contrasted his support of Arizona’s fiercely debated new law on the issue with her opposition to it, and revisited her own past statements to accuse her of favoring “amnesty” for millions of undocumented workers already in the country. Poizner’s latest ad, released Monday, shows a news clip of Mexican President Felipe Calderón criticizing the Arizona measure during his recent speech to Congress, linking Whitman’s stance to Calderón’s: “Do you want a governor who has the same position on illegal immigration as the president of Mexico?” the announcer intones.

As Whitman’s campaign strategists in recent weeks saw the race tighten in their internal polling, they pushed back hard, rolling out a series of ads contrasting Poizner’s nouveau conservative stances with the far more moderate positions he took on a host of issues, including immigration, when he ran and lost a 2004 legislative race in a Democrat-dominated district near San Francisco: “Just another liberal Sacramento politician,” goes the tagline on that one.

And that was just the nice stuff: One of Whitman’s spots charges that Poizner “supports partial-birth abortion,” while he has posted a Web ad that assails her over eBay’s “Adults Only” site: “Do Republicans want a governor who directly profited from selling pornography and sex paraphernalia?”

In Santa Barbara last week, Whitman got some first-hand evidence that Poizner’s attacks are breaking through, when several people at a town hall event at the Museum of Natural History raised questions taken straight out of his ad texts. “That’s absolutely false,” she complained at one point, when asked about an inaccurate spot he ran about her voting record.

Messaging aside, as the nastiest Republican campaign in memory heads to the finish, three key factors seem clear:

• Whitman is still out-spending Poizner nearly 3-1 on TV, a huge advantage in the final days.

• Both candidates have been badly tarnished by the bitter feud, according to several private polls, so that whoever wins will have to spend time and money rehabilitating the unfavorable impression voters have formed.

• The biggest winner to date is Attorney General Jerry Brown, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who has stayed above the fray and saved his money for the general election.

“I don’t think they’re even healthy for the mind,” Brown said of the GOP campaigns, during his recent stop in Santa Barbara. “I think they’re contaminating the children who may see these things.”


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