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California governor's race: All about the money?

Personal wealth is both an asset and drawback for GOP candidates in the California governor's race. Republican billionaire Meg Whitman has put another $20 million into her campaign.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 26, 2010

GOP frontrunner Meg Whitman shown in this December 7, 2009 file photo, threw another $20 million to her campaign to win the Republican primary slated for June 8.

Tim Shaffer/Reuters/File

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Los Angeles

With California's gubernatorial primaries months away and candidates still vague about their campaign platforms, wealth is becoming a key factor in the race.

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Last week, GOP frontrunner Meg Whitman threw another $20 million to her campaign to win the Republican primary slated for June 8. In doing so, the former CEO of eBay passed airline mogul Al Checchi’s record for self-contributions to California governor races. Mr. Checchi spent about $38.9 million of his own money in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1998. Ms. Whitman's personal contributions to her campaign now totals $39 million.

But all that spending may be putting some voters off.

“Millionaires and billionaires … that’s all we ever get around this state,” says housewife Joan Smiley, sitting at a local coffee shop and reading a newspaper report about Whitman’s cash infusion.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) also put his Hollywood millions into winning the governorship in 2003. The latest Field Poll shows his ratings – and state fortunes – to be worse than when he took over.

“I just don’t want this state to get another wealthy, do-nothing, incompetent at the top,” says Ms. Smiley.

How much wealth remains a factor in the race will depend on how candidates play the issue, says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “Wealthy candidates don’t do well if they can’t show competence,” he says.

Whitman's spending has been lambasted by Republican rival and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who trails her in the polls. “She thinks she can buy the race through television and radio advertising?” he asked, in the San Jose Mercury News.

But Mr. Poizner himself is the fourth-largest self-contributor in the history of state governors' races, contributing $19.2 million of his Silicon Valley millions to his campaign.

For now, the GOP candidates' spending seems to be benefiting the Democrats. Without any active campaigning, former governor and current state attorney general Jerry Brown is leading Whitman by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent, according to a recent Rasmussen survey. That’s a significant change since November, when the two were tied at 41 percent each.

How wealth can help candidates