Who Would Be the Best CEO of California?

Will it take a corporate executive to solve California’s fiscal crisis?

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In California, an odd scene is playing out: A former eBay CEO and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur are vying for control of a cash-strapped business that's hemorrhaging billions of dollars each year.

At first glance, this contest has all the trappings of a reality television show. But the business in question is the California state government. And the two competitors, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, are the candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary. They are looking to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.

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In the current environment, it's not often that business leaders can use their status as corporate executives to leverage public support. But in California, they're looking to do just that. "Voters hate career politicians, and they hate CEOs," says Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "The question is: Who should they hate [less]?"

Nationally, as jobless claims pour in and states continue to wrestle with budget gaps, business people are finding a small window of opportunity to resolve that question in their favor.

"I think around the country, people are looking for candidates and elected officials outside of the politician mold. And given the concern over the economy and unemployment, I think they are also looking for people with a business background who are experienced job creators," says Jason Roe, a partner at Revolvis, a conservative research and consulting firm. "And so I think people with a business background are probably far more in vogue this election cycle than ever before."

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That's particularly true in California, where a $20 billion deficit and a record 12.5 percent unemployment rate are steadily eroding voters' patience with politicians.

"It takes a CEO." Enter Whitman, who oversaw the Internet giant eBay during its formative years as it ballooned into a multibillion-dollar business, and Poizner, the founder of SnapTrack, a company that developed global positioning system (GPS) technology for cellphones. Both bring to the table considerable experience in the corporate boardroom, and they are careful to remind voters of this as they promise to rein in an unwieldy Legislature.

"It takes a CEO in [the electorate's] view to come in and take a look at this and say, 'Look, expenses are outpacing revenue. Changes have to be made,' " says GOP strategist Bob Wickers, a principal at the California-based firm Dresner, Wickers & Associates.

A December poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that this sentiment runs particularly deep among the Golden State's Republican voters. In the poll, which targeted likely voters, 61 percent of GOP respondents said that experience running a business is the most important quality they are looking for in a candidate. By comparison, just 26 percent of Democrats cited a business background as their primary concern.

"This, especially in this year, reflects an antigovernment mood, which we see particularly among Republican voters," says Mark Baldassare, the institute's president.

Brand-name appeal. Even though Poizner, who is currently California's insurance commissioner, isn't exactly a political outsider, he has been working hard to tap into this alienated voter base by cementing his image as the "angry populist," says Ray McNally, a Republican consultant and the president of the firm McNally Temple Associates.

But to date, it appears that Whitman has spun the most convincing narrative, and it seems that she owes much of her double-digit lead in the polls to her ability to market her connection to eBay.

"The eBay brand is obviously well known, and so it helps establish her in the mind of the electorate more easily than somebody like Steve Poizner," says Roe. "There is a cultish following among eBay users for Meg Whitman . . . . There's that kind of a constituency out there that she'd be able to tap into. Now is it one that wins an election? Of course not. But it certainly helps establish her."

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