- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | As Meg Whitman has been introducing herself to California voters, she retells a line that usually generates a chuckle: “The next governor of California needs to know exactly what SHE believes.”

The statement conveys the kind of confidence the former eBay executive displayed in her trailblazing role as the female head of a Fortune 500 company. It also is a reminder of the pioneering role she would play if she is elected as the first woman to California’s highest office.

Mrs. Whitman rarely dwells on her gender as she seeks to woo the female voters who now make up a majority of California’s electorate. But when she does make that pitch, her language at times comes across as tone-deaf. A recent poll shows she is having mixed results in winning over women.

Some of the statements on Mrs. Whitman’s Web site and at campaign events sound as if they come from a previous era, when women could only dream of leading a major company.

For example, in talking about the devastating effects of California’s high unemployment rate and faltering economy, Mrs. Whitman says it has provoked tough conversations in families. Among them, she regularly says, are “husbands telling wives that they can’t afford their homes any longer.”

After facing criticism for her apparent failure to vote in numerous elections, Mrs. Whitman, 53, said, “I was focused on raising a family, on my husband’s career. We moved many, many times. And it is no excuse.” During that time, Mrs. Whitman was an executive at major companies that included Procter & Gamble, Hasbro, Disney and eBay.

Her response drew criticism from women who said they still found time to vote despite juggling busy work and family schedules, although others have said they welcomed her acknowledgment.

In another example, an article on her Web site titled “Whitman gets mothers, daughters, talking about politics” says: “Mothers, many of them for the first time, are talking with their daughters about politics, about achieving their goals and about being unafraid to dream. And their daughters are listening.”

It’s a statement that seems naive in a state with a long history of women’s political activism. Both of California’s U.S. senators are women, and Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco is the first female speaker of the House of Representatives.

“Ahhh, no. That is so untrue,” said Mirna Reyes-Bible, a Republican who said she has discussed politics with her son and daughter, both of whom are now grown, since they were in grade school.

“We have really lively debates about issues, and I love it,” she said. “That to me is almost arrogant, to think that just because you came on the scene, we’re finally discussing politics.”

Mrs. Reyes-Bible, an officer of the Yolo County Republican Women Federated group, gave Mrs. Whitman a glowing introduction at the group’s luncheon in Davis in September, but said she is still undecided about which candidate she will support in June’s primary election.

Despite lengthy political engagement by women in California, the Republican Party has been slow to embrace women candidates.

Two women — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1990 and former state treasurer Kathleen Brown four years later — have been the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, but the California Republican Party has never chosen a female gubernatorial or U.S. Senate nominee. Just five of the 43 Republican lawmakers in the state legislature are women.

In trying to bridge that gap, Mrs. Whitman’s language could be a winning strategy to attract the older conservatives who dominate Republican primaries and who tend to hold social views that are far more conservative than the overall electorate.

Among them are Republican women who typically lead the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts in California, said Sharon Runner, a former Republican assemblywoman from Lancaster who is co-chairwoman of Mrs. Whitman’s campaign.

“You’ll have a woman candidate who’s running for Assembly or Senate who still has children at home, I think a lot of Republican women would not vote for that candidate because they think she should be at home,” Miss Runner said. “Democrats don’t have that hurdle.”

An October Field Poll found Mrs. Whitman was doing best among the older voters, although half of Republican voters were still undecided. More than a third of those age 50 to 64 backed her, and she was virtually tied with former Rep. Tom Campbell for support among Republicans 65 and older. Mr. Campbell led with voters ages 18 to 49.

A Los Angeles Times-University of Southern California poll this month found Mrs. Whitman still has work to do to win support from Republican women, a third of whom had not yet made up their minds. While 40 percent of men who registered Republican said they supported her, only 30 percent of women did. The other candidates surveyed had about equal support from both genders.

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