If Meg Whitman were a character in a Doonesbury strip, she'd be represented by a giant dollar sign.
She's already spent more money simply introducing herself to California voters than any previous Republican candidate for governor has spent on an entire campaign. And there's about a hundred million more where that came from.
Last week though, all that money couldn't buy her out of the ignominy that befell her campaign when she cackled at reporters instead of answering our questions, at her own "open media" event in Oakland. National ridicule ensued. So when the California Republican Party opened its spring convention Friday afternoon in Santa Clara, Whitman raced about the Hyatt Regency to make amends, holding 80 minutes' worth of news conferences and granting interviews to all comers.
It's tempting to blame Whitman's media shyness on inexperience - except the rookie candidate has a vast campaign apparatus staffed by seasoned pols, many of them veterans of the Wilson and Schwarzenegger campaigns and administrations. Give them credit for coming to their senses and recognizing that freezing out the media is a bad idea, and that Whitman is sharp enough to hold her own with us.
So $ finally talked. And talked. And talked. And Chatty Maggie promises much more media access as the campaign goes on - at least until she wins the Republican primary over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. We'll see if the haughtiness returns if she advances to the general election against Democrat Jerry Brown.
Other notes from this weekend's GOPalooza:
BEST SPEECH: Carly Fiorina, hands down. Eschewing the podium and prepared text of her Senate rivals, the ex-HP CEO was the weekend's most dynamic speaker, delivering an Oprah-style oratory from an in-the-round stage. She was surrounded by "Carly for California" banners and dozens of young supporters in red "Carly" t-shirts. Fiorina worked from note cards (nothing written on her hand, as far as we could see) and pumped up the crowd with a high-energy speech.
WORST SPEECH: Tom Campbell. The former Congressman, law professor, business school dean and state finance director was dull and cerebral. He may lead Fiorina in the polls but he'd better step up his game once they start debating. This was supposed to be a delegate-inspiring call to action, not a Stanford lecture. The third Senate candidate, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, didn't do much better.
BEST NEWS CONFERENCE: Chuck DeVore. He's smart, funny and culturally literate. Unlike his convention speech, at which he sounded like he was delivering a history paper, DeVore's 45 minutes with the media were entertaining and revealing. Who else tosses in Monty Python and Woody Allen references? The conservative Orange County Assemblyman turns out to be a real wonk, sharp as a tack when it comes to politics, quick on his feet, personable and fun. And he let slip that he is an "increasingly distant" cousin of Jerry Brown. "My mom met him at a family event when he was 11. She says even then, he was weird."
WORST NEWS CONFERENCE: Carly Fiorina. Ugh. Whitman did an hour, then another one for 20 minutes. Poizner and DeVore each ran well over half an hour. Why? Because they all give expansive answers and delve deeply into the issues. Fiorina? Short, clipped answers. That don't answer the question posed. Forcing us to follow up and finally pry a sort-of answer out of her. And after ten minutes - she was gone.
RISING STAR: Damon Dunn. A star football player at Stanford, Dunn kicked around the NFL for a few years with four different teams, before going into the real estate business. He made a fortune and now's he a rookie in another contact sport, as a Republican candidate for Secretary of State. He's never even voted before, which won't help him get elected to the job that oversees elections in California, but he wowed the convention crowd with an electric speech. He has a moving personal story, sprinting out of Texas poverty to a Stanford scholarship and a successful business career, and his anecdote about training with Jerry Rice by climbing an impossibly steep mountain was the most memorable oratorical moment of the entire weekend. At 34, Dunn has a bright political future. Perhaps he should start at the local level - but when you see him running for governor in 2018, or 2022, or 2026 - remember where you first heard his name.
BEST FREEBIE: The holographic card slipped under hotel room doors by the College Republicans (who were a real force at this convention - young, chipper and fired up) that showed Tom Campbell morphing into a Demon Sheep. A close second: the lavishly packaged DVD of Fiorina's follow-up to the Demon Sheep video, the "Hot Air" ad that turns Barbara Boxer into a giant blimp fueled by her own hot air (which DeVore dubbed the "Hindenboxer" - I told you he was funny).
The dominant political theme over the weekend was red meat conservatism - tough talk on illegal immigration, cutting taxes, stopping what Campbell called the "soft socialism" of the Obama Democrats. But the overriding theme was money - Whitman's, Fiorina's, and Poizner's. Whitman, in particular, spread hers all over the Hyatt. She bought out Channel 32 on the hotel TV system, filling it with anti-Poizner attack ads, 24/7. She handed out CDs of those ads, and filled the hotel and convention center with banners, posters, stickers and various and sundry other assorted tchotchkes. Fiorina covered the walls with horror movie-style posters for her Hindenboxer ad. She paid for hotel rooms for her volunteers (DeVore charged that Fiorina also paid them $200 each to attend, which Fiorina's campaign vehemently denied. I asked a few if they were paid, and only one said he had been: "I think I'm voting for DeVore, but dude, 200 bucks is 200 bucks." Fiorina's press secretary said the kid was lying).
Their supporters slapped so many campaign stickers on so many surfaces that the hotel staff grew increasingly annoyed at having to scrape them off escalator railings and toilet stall doors. "I won't miss these damn people," one janitorial worker grumbled to me.
The California Democrats were noticeably absent from this convention - no rapid response team, no reaction at all to all the Dem-bashing. But they'd better take notice not only of the Republicans' sense that the tide is turning their way, even in California, but that it's a green tide, powered by a whole lot of $, and if Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and their allies aren't able to respond in kind, they may well find themselves swamped by a surprising t$unami in November.