SACRAMENTO — It took Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman less than two weeks to hang up her hard line on immigration and to go on Spanish-language TV catering to the Latino vote.
It was but one step toward middle ground for a candidate pulled right in the primary.
Forget that endorsement from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and those robo calls from former Vice President Dick Cheney.
And don't expect to hear any more from former Gov. Pete Wilson, who pleased GOP voters in the Republican primary when he said Whitman would be "tough as nails on illegal immigration," but who is considered a liability on that topic in a general election in which fewer than a third of voters are registered Republican.
"Trust me, you will not hear from any of them," said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide.
For candidates who stake out too liberal or too conservative turf too starkly in partisan primaries, shifting back in a general election to gain broader appeal can be difficult. Polls showed that Whitman's primary election opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, would have had trouble attracting moderate voters against Democrat Jerry Brown in November.
Yet Whitman, though she battled Poizner in a flood of TV ads about who was more conservative, did so largely in generalities, and on specific issues she did not go so far.
"She certainly didn't go so far as to reach the point of no return," said Renee Van Vechten, an assistant professor of government at the University of Redlands. "I think Steve Poizner pretty much reached that point."
The one significant issue on which Whitman did try to match Poizner was immigration. The former eBay CEO said, "Illegal immigrants are just that, illegal," and in one ad she employed an image of the border fence.
But Whitman maintained her opposition to Arizona's tough new anti-immigration law and to Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants. She reminded voters of that in ads on Spanish-language TV stations during World Cup games last week, and she started advertising Wednesday on Spanish-language radio.
Despite pitching right in her rhetoric, Whitman's opposition to Arizona's law, "even during the heat of the primary," was crucial to her viability in November, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. Nineteen percent of the electorate in 2008 was Latino, according to an exit poll, and it is expected that Whitman must win about a third of votes cast by Latinos if she is to defeat Brown in November.
Regalado said that with Latino voters, "I think she's damaged, but not fundamentally."
To the Whitman campaign, the importance of appearing on Spanish-language TV is partly symbolic. Most Latinos who are voters are likely not tuned primarily to Spanish-language TV, but some are, and others talk about ads playing on those stations, said Jane Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California and research director of the USC College/L.A. Times Poll.
"In the broader context, these kinds of things can have a broad appeal beyond the guy sitting on his couch watching an ad," she said.
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Brown, said Whitman's advertising is insincere.
Brown and his supporters are expected to push back at Whitman on immigration. Wilson, Whitman's campaign chairman, was a chief supporter of Proposition 187 and remains highly unpopular among Latinos.
"I have a picture on my desk of Pete Wilson kissing Meg Whitman," Clifford said Wednesday. "I think you'll see more of that picture."
Neither will other high-profile GOP endorsements fade out entirely. The liberal advocacy group Courage Campaign, for example, has a video online in which Cheney is played by Darth Vader, wearing a "Go Meg!" button and talking to prospective voters on the streets of Los Angeles: "Hello, I'm supporting Meg Whitman for governor. I think she's just great."
The impact of such a message, however, is not likely to be overwhelming, experts said. Unlike in some down-ticket races, endorsements typically do not weigh heavily in high-profile contests, where voters tend by Election Day to be familiar with the candidates themselves.
Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds said Whitman "is the same candidate today that she was three weeks ago, she was three months ago, and she will be when she's elected in November."
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