Meg Whitman and the Amnesty Challenge

Three new polls show Meg Whitman surging in California’s GOP gubernatorial primary. One, by McLaughlin Associates, shows Whitman leading Steve Poizner by 26 points. Another, by Public Policy Polling, has her up by 25. A third, by SurveyUSA, says she holds a 27-point lead:

In the Republican primary for Governor, Meg Whitman has re-captured momentum she appeared to lose earlier this month, and today leads Steve Poizner 2:1, with 1 in 6 likely voters having already cast a ballot. SurveyUSA’s tracking graphs display a pronounced bow-tie, exemplified by, but not limited to, male voters, where Whitman went from 51% support on 04/22/10 to 37% support on 05/10/10 to 55% support today 05/24/10. Poizner’s angle of support is inverted, from 28% on 04/22/10 to 41% on 05/10/10 to 28% today 05/24/10. Almost identical sea-sawing is evident among gun owners and among likely voters in greater Los Angeles.

Larry Kudlow, over at Money Politic$, reckons that Whitman’s economic focus has been key to her ascent:

Whitman has stayed on message, with job creation (12.6% unemployment) and solving the near-bankrupt state’s $20 billion budget deficit her top priorities. She intends to abolish the state’s capital-gains tax while knocking out $15 billion in welfare and other transfer payments that have spiraled out of control. Government union salaries will be frozen, while pension eligibility for retirement will be raised and vesting periods will be increased. She also will aggressively use the state’s powerful line-item veto. And she has taken the no-new-tax pledge as an aggressive promise. Sound like Chris Christie? You betcha.

Spending $68 million of your fortune on a primary campaign doesn’t hurt, either.

Whitman’s recent rebound on immigration is another important factor. Her ability to swat away Poizner’s attacks and clarify her position, even though she doesn’t support Arizona’s immigration law, helps to explain the large poll margins.

Earlier this week, with good reason, I spoke with California politicos about what I thought may have been a Whitman slide. A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showed Whitman with a meager nine-point lead, after being up 50 in the same poll in March. Whitman’s opposition to Arizona’s immigration law, it seemed, was a problem with primary voters:

Whitman’s slow dip into hot water began in April, when she came out strong against Arizona’s immigration law, saying “if that law were to come before me, I would oppose it.” In an interview with the Associated Press she said there are “just better ways to solve this problem.” Compounding that headache were comments she made in October 2009, recommending a “fair program” for illegal immigrants to “stand in the back of the line” and “pay a fine”- not deportation – as one possible solution. State conservative blogs and activists had a field day.

Soon after, in a town-hall meeting with supporters, Whitman quickly tacked right, telling the assembled that she had “tremendous amount of sympathy for the people of Arizona . . . they rose up.” Her opposition to amnesty, she lamented, “has been so misrepresented,” but still, even she admitted, the episode had been her “welcome to politics” moment. Indeed.

Rob Stutzman, Whitman’s political strategist, tells NRO that the campaign immediately realized that it had to address the situation by making Whitman’s “anti-amnesty” position known, stat. “Arizona spiked the issue and elevated it,” he says. “But once voters were assured that [Whitman] is opposed to amnesty, our tracking, by a substantial margin, has held steadfast now for over a week.”

Below are two of the Whitman “no amnesty” ads blanketing the Golden State. Stutzman says they have been crucial in boosting the campaign’s immigration position with primary voters. The first features former GOP governor Pete Wilson saying Whitman is as “tough as nails” on the issue. The second, in Stutzman’s words, features “Meg looking straight-on at the camera, being as clear as possible about where she stands.” In the run up to the June 8 primary, Stutzman tells us that Team Meg will “continue to make her opposition to amnesty clear and draw voters’ attention back toward fiscal issues.” Poizner, he adds, “is now coming to be seen as a liberal. We have been able to sufficiently define him. He’s a Sacramento politician.”

UPDATE: From Team Poizner:

In October 2009 after a tour of the US-Mexico border (her first and only visit) Meg Whitman spoke to members of the media where she advocated a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants (a.k.a amnesty). [Here] is a link to the news cast and a link to the article.

Meg has tried to tried to hide her support for amnesty, once she realized that the polling suggested she should be tough on the issue, she switched her position. She now says what she meant was that she supported a guest worker program. Meg Whitman is either inept on understanding the basics of immigration, or she is trying to hide her position in order to mask her liberal record. The problem with Meg’s “what I meant was guest worker” statement is two-fold:

1) If she wasn’t referring to amnesty, why did every news outlet covering the event say she was advocating comprehensive immigration reform/path to legalization? (here and here) Why didn’t she correct their statements if they reported the story wrong? And an ABC News piece from November 2009 also characterized her position as supportive of comprehensive immigration reform when she was speaking to Latino groups. She didn’t correct these statements either.

2) If Whitman was referring to a guest worker program, why didn’t she just say the words –“guest worker”? It is impossible that what Whitman was discussing on the U.S.-Mexico border was anything other than amnesty with comments like “pay a fine,” “go to the back of the line,” as there is no line for a guest worker program and there are no fines to be paid, especially if they are applying from their home country.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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