SACRAMENTO — In poll after poll, California voters from both major parties have made it clear they see the recession, the state's budget mess and taxes as their top priorities this election year.
On the airwaves, however, the Republican candidates for governor are talking about anything but that trio of issues.
Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner instead are bashing each other over their past support of prominent Democrats and the wisdom of a federal amnesty for illegal immigrants, not a policy the governor controls.
Given the tenor of the televised debate, it's no surprise voters such as Republican Herbert Johnson say they know little about the candidates and are uninspired by the race.
"The two of them are hitting at each other more than anything else," said Johnson, a retired mechanical engineer from Lincoln. "I don't see that it gets us anywhere. And I don't see anyone has a solution to the budget."
While political campaigns often degenerate into squabbles over wedge issues, the negativity of this year's race has been amplified by the sheer amount of money being spent, more than $100 million so far, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan think tank.
The focus on tangential issues also ignores what's regarded as the worst economic and budget crises the state has faced in decades, widening the gap between the tenor of the televised debate and the severity of problems facing the next governor, Stern said.
"They're trying to relate to what people understand," he said. "And a lot of these issues like the budget are difficult to understand."
The candidates, both wealthy former Silicon Valley CEOs with moderate leanings, are on the same page on a range of topics. Both say they want to slash state spending and taxes and go after public employee benefits. In their ads, they are largely seeking to emphasize differences that could give voters a reason to reject their opponent. And there's little doubt the ads are moving public opinion.
Whitman built a commanding 50-point lead over Poizner in March on the strength of early advertising highlighting her leadership of the online auction firm eBay and her fiscal principles.
Poizner cut that lead to single digits in May by pounding Whitman over her ties to the much-criticized investment firm Goldman Sachs and by staking hard-line stands on illegal immigration.
She rebounded with ads raising fears that Poizner's past support of a measure that made it easier to build schools means he's willing to tamper with property-tax protecting Proposition 13.
"It's part of a modern campaign to contrast on issues," said top Whitman strategist Jeff Randle.
Another Whitman strategist, Mike Murphy, pointed out that the campaign has sent out 750,000 copies of a 48-page magazine detailing the candidate's policy stands.
Poizner spokesman Jarrod Agen defended his campaign's on-air focus on illegal immigration as reflecting the priorities of California Republicans. The nonpartisan Field Poll found in March that the issue ranked fourth among 12 priorities for state Republicans, 11th for Democrats.
"That's where we focus a lot of our advertising because it's an area of clear difference between Steve and Meg Whitman," Agen said.
Both GOP candidates do talk about substantive issues on the campaign trail, often in response to audience questions.
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