Sunday, January 23, 2011

California Runner-Up Bypasses Review of Race

BERKELEY, Calif. - Every four years, the minds - left and right - that brought you the California governor's race get together for a collegial post-mortem at the University of California, Berkeley, on what they did right and wrong in the campaign. Coffee is served, as is - usually - political dish.

But on Friday, while the event went on as planned, there was one noticeable absence: the campaign of Meg Whitman, the billionaire Republican who spent about $150 million of her own money in a losing effort to Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

"We approached lots of people through lots of different channels," said Ethan Rarick, the director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the university and one of the event's hosts. "I'm a little perplexed by it, but it's their call."

Officials for the Whitman campaign said they simply did not see the point.

"I declined the Berkeley thing in 2003 when I did Arnold's winning race," Mike Murphy, a Whitman strategist, said of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful campaign in a recall election. "And I declined this one."

Still, Ms. Whitman and her consultants took some knocks from other participants on Friday for appearing to dodge the event. And some of the harshest comments came from fellow Republicans.

James Bognet, a strategist for Steve Poizner, whom Ms. Whitman beat in the Republican primary, called her campaign "very bloody" and sometimes unethical, with sharp attacks on his candidate.

"I was going to bring a wood chipper here to represent the Whitman campaign," he quipped, "but I couldn't find one."

Much of the defense of Ms. Whitman was left to Duf Sundheim, a former chairman of the California Republican Party. He said that Ms. Whitman had deliberated long and hard before deciding to run, and that she took the campaign - and its challenges - seriously. But he, too, said mistakes had been made.

"I think they did have certain missteps," said Mr. Sundheim, mentioning some awkward early interviews and an initial reluctance to engage the press. "Clearly, there's a steep learning curve here."

Democrats, who also won statewide races for attorney general (Kamala Harris) and lieutenant governor (Gavin Newsom), had a little more to laugh about.

Asked if there was one thing the Brown campaign would have changed, its spokesman, Sterling Clifford, said, "Nothing." The Brown campaign manager, Steven M. Glazer, offered "telephone operational training," an allusion to the recorded conversation, released late in the campaign, of an aide calling Ms. Whitman a "whore" on an open phone line.

Mr. Glazer said Ms. Whitman had been a "very tall pine tree in the primary" but fell easily in the general election.

"She had no root structure," he said.

Asked why Mr. Brown had worried about Ms. Whitman's possible strength, Mr. Glazer said, "Uh, cha-ching?"

But Mr. Bognet said her spending power might have backfired, adding that Ms. Whitman's brand, as it were, eventually became "She's the one with the money who won't get off my TV."

Mr. Sundheim was more blunt, and perhaps even more pessimistic, in a state where his party trails badly in voter registration. "The Republican brand in this state is death," he said.

For his part, Mr. Rarick said he had held out hope that Ms. Whitman's representatives would attend for a couple of reasons.

"No. 1, it would make our conference better, a more complete record of the race, for students of politics and history," he said. "And two, I think personally it would be in their best interest to come and defend themselves."


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