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Is the Whitman campaign machine built to handle October surprises?

October 6, 2010 | 11:45 am

Whitmanbrowbn Over at The Times' PolitiCal blog, David Lauter illustrates the upward trajectory of Meg Whitman's campaign before it was revealed last week that she employed an undocumented housekeeper, a reversal of fortune that my colleague Jon Healey blogged about Monday. Lauter writes:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was making significant progress with previously undecided voters during the summer and early fall, according to a poll of California voters conducted by USC students that concluded just before Whitman became enmeshed in a controversy surrounding her former housekeeper.

The poll indicated that the previously undecided voters surveyed favored Whitman over her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, by a significant margin and viewed her more favorably than they did Brown. By large margins, they believed Whitman would do a better job than Brown in tackling major issues, including the state’s economy, government spending and taxes....

The respondents favored Whitman over Brown, 43% to 32%, and favored Boxer over Fiorina, 39% to 34%, a narrow lead that is well within the poll’s margin of error. In comparison with voters overall, those who said they were undecided were more likely to be women and more likely to describe themselves as independent. They were also slightly older on average than the overall voter population.

I've written before that Whitman appears to have done nothing illegal and in fact acted properly by firing her housekeeper upon learning of Nicandra Diaz Santillan's undocumented status. But there's no denying Whitman's guilt when it comes to doing a terrible job of diffusing a crisis that her campaign no doubt knew could produce itself at any time. As George Skelton noted in his column Monday, Whitman, in a debate with Brown, repeated her canned sound bite on punishing employers who hire illegal labor as if the scandal threatening her campaign was nothing more than a bad dream. Brown dutifully provided the accusation of hypocrisy that his Republican opponent all but asked for.

Whitman obviously wants to stick to her script (or she lacks the ability to go off it), a strategy that yielded positive returns until last week. She has largely bypassed the essentially free publicity of traditional news media and taken her message directly to voters via a barrage of expensive TV and radio ads, which her considerable personal fortune allows. None of this is to say it's impossible for her to make up ground between now and election day, but this story exists despite Whitman's money and message, and it exposes her campaign's -- and potential gubernatorial administration's -- ineptness at thinking on its feet.

Despite his plunging popularity in the White House, Barack Obama ran the textbooks campaign of an outsider: He came across as a fresh-faced, nimble political alternative while overseeing the disciplined operation one would expect of a political heavyweight behind the scenes, as anyone who's read "Game Change" knows. Whitman, by contrast, appears to lose control the more she tries to exert it despite having the money and strategists any major candidate would envy. Perhaps the candidate has something to do with it.

-- Paul Thornton

Photo: Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown debate at Fresno State University on Oct. 2. Credit: Getty Images

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