Meg Whitman seeks to solidify Republican support

File photo: Meg Whitman at a news conference at a local business in San Diego.
File photo: Meg Whitman at a news conference at a local business in San Diego.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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California Republican leaders urged the party faithful to close ranks around their nominee for governor at this weekend’s state party convention in San Diego. Meg Whitman faces what promises to be a bruising campaign against Democrat Jerry Brown for the state’s top job.

Republicans gathered along the waterfront in San Diego ten weeks before the election. None liked the idea of Jerry Brown returning to the office he held in the 1970s and '80s.

But some also expressed skepticism about their own nominee. Helen Doss is a retired school teacher from Diamond Bar who wished Meg Whitman took more conservative positions on immigration issues.

“You know she said she was quote, 'hard as nails on immigration' – and then later she doesn’t like the Arizona law," Doss said.

Conservatives tried to push through a resolution to endorse Arizona’s law. Whitman backers quashed it, worried that it would hurt her chances with Latino swing voters.

Don Hollingsworth of Riverside said his fellow conservatives are missing the point on immigration. "I don’t think that’s the biggest issue. I think right now, the economy is. I think that’s the issue – jobs, jobs and jobs.”

Young Whitman supporters chanted “Take back Sac” – as in Sacramento – as she arrived at the convention. She touted her plan to create 2 million jobs in California and her independence as a political outsider – she’s never held elected office. She’s also rarely voted.

During her convention address, Whitman stepped up her attacks on her Democratic opponent.

"Jerry Brown is bought and paid for by the unions and the entrenched interests that will keep California from being great again," Whitman said.

She acknowledged that she’s put a lot of money into the race – more than $100 million – but she added that more importantly, she’s put her heart and soul into the quest to govern California. And she answered a persistent question about why a billionaire would want to spend so much and serve as governor.

“The reason that I am running for governor of California is I refuse to believe that our state cannot be better than it is and I refuse to sit by and watch while our state fails.”

Whitman won cheers from the crowd, even as some wondered whether she is another Arnold Schwarzenegger – an outsider who many conservatives consider more a Democrat than Republican.

John Fleishman, Southern California chair of the GOP, said Whitman needs to listen to her skeptics.

“I think some of the voices you hear here at the convention are people trying to remind Meg Whitman that as you seek support from independents and Democrats, you also need to continue to emphasize themes that are going to help Republicans turn out the vote," Fleishman said.

"You need over 90 to 95 percent of the Republican vote as a Republican to win in California," he said. Fleishman said Whitman has about 70 percent now.

Whitman’s South Bay campaign chair John Stamereich said local leaders like him are working hard to increase that proportion.

“This will go right down to the wire. This will not be one of those elections where it will be October and someone will be up 20 points.”

Whitman’s strategists believes conservative and moderate Republicans will turn out for her. But she'll have to win over Democrats and decline-to-state voters if she hopes to beat Jerry Brown on November 2.