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Meg Whitman, eBay billionaire, to run for California governor

Ms. Whitman brings business savvy and oodles of money to her campaign to be the GOP nominee.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / September 22, 2009

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, center, shakes hands with supporters after announcing her candidacy for governor on Tuesday, in Fullerton, Calif.

Cheryl A. Guerrero/AP

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Los Angeles

Former eBay CEO and billionaire Meg Whitman’s formal announcement Tuesday that she would run for the Republican nomination for California governor could potentially shake up the GOP side in the state's 2010 gubernatorial race.

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Ms. Whitman has reportedly already spent $15 million on her campaign, and on Tuesday she launched a statewide radio ad. She has previously said she could spend as much $150 million on her campaign, putting pressure on the Democratic candidates, especially San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Jerry Brown who is expected to run.

“This raises the specter of a real challenge from the GOP side,” says Jessica Levinson, political analyst for the Center for Governmental Studies.

Political analysts say her assets are many. She is highly personable, has a successful record in business, and has very deep pockets – unlike her opponents in both parties. Whitman, who was national co-chair of Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year, has strong support from GOP women.

She also has the support of former Gov. Pete Wilson, her committee chair, who has a political apparatus in place all over the state.

But she has liabilities, too. She has never run for office before, has a poor record of even voting, and has been criticized for being evasive on policy specifics.

Whitman said Tuesday that she would make at least $15 billion in permanent spending cuts. She also said she would put a moratorium on the 2006 law on reducing statewide greenhouse-gas emissions.

“It’s fine to lay out how many dollars she’d save or state jobs she’d eliminate, but it’s something else to specify which programs she’d cut and whose jobs she’d do away with,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “If there were a politically palatable way to do these things, wouldn’t the governor and legislature have done them already?”

How Whitman crafts her economic message in a state and nation coming out of deep recession will be key to her success, say analysts.

“If you look at the history of extremely rich candidates in California, you find that most did not have great success even when the economy was good,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. “Now, the economy is in the dumps and voters are frustrated with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it is unclear whether or not they are ready for another round of on-the-job learning.”

Whitman is running in the June primary against state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner and former US Representative Tom Campbell. If she wins in the primary, she would be the first woman nominee for California governor.

“Meg came up through the ranks in business, earning her stripes by getting things done, which is a foreign concept to most politicians and legislators,” says Marilyn Gutsche, a Santa Barbara resident who never heard of Whitman before being impressed by her at a luncheon in May.

“My impression is that she’s doing this truly out of a desire to serve. Call me naïve, but I think she’s the one for the job.”