With yesterday's official announcement by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman that she will be a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor, the 2010 campaign season in California began in earnest.
The announcement came less than two weeks before the state Republican Party convention, and ensures that talk of Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- and whether either of them is the best choice -- will dominate the delegates' attention.
Poizner has locked up most of the establishment endorsements, including the majority of the state's GOP congressional delegation (Elton Gallegly is among his supporters) and most GOP legislators, including two who represent portions of Ventura County, Sen. George Runner and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth.
One who is not one the Poizner bandwagon is Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, who is an enthusiastic Whitman backer.
Both candidates are Silicon Valley billionaires with the ability to largely self-fund their campaigns. But neither is likely to stir the passions of the conservative activists who populate these conventions. Additionally, the political environment may not be conducive next year for multimillionaire CEOs, given the populist outcry over excessive executive compensation in the financial industry.
The question remains whether there is a legitimate opportunity for a very conservative candidate to enter the field and to be competitive against two big-spenders. GOP strategist Richard Temple told me yesterday he believes it would take $8 million to $10 million for a conservative candidate just to position himself or herself to take advantage of possible meltdown of the top candidates. To wage a full-on competitive battle, he estimated, it might take $20 million.
Whenever two wealthy candidates get into a primary, there is always an opportunity for a third candidate to steal the nomination, because it sets up the possibility for a "murder-suicide" scenario in which the two wealthy candidates spend big money attacking the other. In 1998, that's what happened in the Democratic primary when underdog Gray Davis benefitted from the mutual destruction of Al Checchi and Jane Harman.
As noted here last week, there is an attempt among some Southern California conservatives to create some buzz for Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy . It remains to be seen how serious those efforts are -- and whether Foy has the wherewithal to raise the many millions that would be needed to be anything but a small-time spoiler against two candidates with bottomless checkbooks.