Heading into the 2010 general election campaign, Democrats and Republicans may not agree on much, but both parties are ready to make the corporate experience of GOP candidates a key issue in the top two races.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman calls it the Democrats' worst nightmare: a GOP ticket that's headed by two former executives who have created jobs and balanced budgets.
While Republicans are eager to tout the corporate credentials of Whitman and GOP Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, Democrats are equally content to try to tie them to the excesses of the business world.
On Wednesday, a protester in Anaheim carried a sign that read "Wall Street Whitman."
In Washington, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to note that Fiorina laid off 32,000 workers when she led Hewlett-Packard and then collected a $42 million golden parachute when she was fired.
Experts say the debate will cut one of two ways: Voters will reward the women for their business acumen, particularly at a time when the economy is their top concern, or they will reject their insider experience, particularly at a time when the image of Wall Street executives has taken such a public beating.
Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said Republicans are putting "all of their eggs in the basket of business," adding that it could be a risky strategy.
"The advantage for the Republican Party is now it can run two campaigns with a single story, and that story is throw out the politicians and bring in business savvy," Kousser said. "It gives them a unified front. The danger is that they're really doubling down on their bet that Californians hate Sacramento and Washington more than they blame Wall Street."
Tony Quinn, a longtime observer of state elections and co-editor of the California Target Book, said Whitman and Fiorina will be able to distance themselves from the scandals involving high-ranking executives at various companies: "It would have been a lot worse for them if they came out of the banking side of Wall Street, but neither of them did."
While the Republicans are placing their bets on business insiders, Democrats are going with two longtime Democratic officeholders: former governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown against Whitman, a former e-Bay executive; and three-term incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer against Fiorina.
"Boxer and Brown are going to try to portray themselves as champions of the people against evil corporations," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "And Fiorina and Whitman will portray themselves as hardworking businesspeople who are pitted against longtime political insiders."
In her acceptance speech, Fiorina said she brings "real world experience" to the table while Boxer "thinks the real world revolves around a couple of square miles and a vast unaccountable bureaucracy" in Washington.
Boxer, however, has the power of incumbency – and a committee chairman's gavel – on her side. She wants to change a law that says parties responsible for an oil spill have to pay a maximum of only $75 million for economic and natural resources damages.
In previous elections, experts say, Boxer has won by shifting the debate to social issues such as abortion rights and gun control. Quinn said that it will be tougher for Democrats to put Republicans on the defensive over non-pocketbook issues this year, given the focus on the economy.
Other business leaders have turned to politics with some success in recent years. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in his third term and still enjoys a 57 percent approval rating.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Whitman's former employer and current political mentor, was credited with achieving health care and budget overhauls in his single four-year term, though his tenure ended with depressed ratings as he eyed the 2008 presidential race.
In the end, California voters will have to decide how important it is for candidates to have business experience. Opinions vary.
Glenn Holmes, a 56-year-old quality control manager from Woodland, said he voted for both Whitman and Fiorina because he likes their corporate backgrounds.
"It's pretty obvious to me that our lawmakers have no concept of how to manage the money," he said. "And I think business skills are needed to make money and spend money correctly."
On the other hand, Marcia Clark, 73, a Republican from Orangevale, said business experience doesn't necessarily help in politics because it's not an arena where you can use top-down command skills.
"I don't really feel that it holds true when you're talking about government," she said. "They're used to saying, 'OK, now we're going to do this, and you shall do that,' and that doesn't work in politics."