The surprise decision by a little-known Republican moderate to quit the California governor's race in favor of a U.S. Senate run has dramatically altered the state's election season, with two-high profile candidates feeling the reverberations.
The looming question: Just how much did Tom Campbell's midstream switch Thursday help gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief executive, and hurt Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who led Hewlett-Packard Co.?
The two former Silicon Valley titans have elevated the profile of their respective races and stoked Republican hopes of a double-barreled victory in the nation's most populous state.
Whitman has held a substantial lead over Campbell and the other candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, another wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Campbell's exit gives her one less veteran politician to worry about, said Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at the University of California, Irvine.
"I don't know when Meg Whitman's birthday is, but this is probably the best birthday present she ever got," he said.
He said Whitman might be able to start campaigning early against state Attorney General Jerry Brown, the former governor who is the lone entry in the Democratic field.
Whitman has been airing radio ads for months, fueled in part by the $19 million she donated to her campaign from her personal fortune. Poizner brought his personal loans to the same level last month, but several observers say he needs to start spending it as he plays catch-up to Whitman.
Campbell vs. Whitman's cash
Their vast wealth is one reason that Campbell, a former officeholder, government bureaucrat and college business professor, said he pulled out of the governor's race.
Whitman and Poizner are alike in many respects, preaching austerity in government, but Whitman is better known by virtue of her stint as one of the few women heading a Fortune 500 company. She also played an advisory role in John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.
"While the primary tends to favor conservatives, I think it makes it easier for Meg with Tom Campbell out," said Adam Mendelsohn, a political adviser and former communications director to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "One would assume the moderate Republican vote would default to Meg."
But Mendelsohn added that Poizner could attract Campbell supporters who want someone with government experience.
The Senate race is more dramatically affected: Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive who orchestrated the company's takeover of Compaq Computer Corp., now faces a challenger likely to steal moderate votes from her in the June primary.
Campbell represented Silicon Valley during his five terms in Congress and is a former budget director to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is in his last year in office. He has promoted his fiscal credentials and is a moderate on social issues, favoring gay marriage and abortion rights. His entry into the race suggests he thinks it's wide open.
The other candidate trying for the Republican nomination in the Senate race is state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a Tea Party advocate who has little money but is running an aggressive grassroots campaign to court the conservative voters who dominate GOP primaries.
He cheered Campbell's entry into the race, saying it would split the moderate vote and make it easier for him to win the June election.
"Of all the people around today, the guy who has to be smiling the most is Chuck DeVore, and the person who is smiling almost as much is Barbara Boxer," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University.
A general election campaign pitting the three-term Democratic senator against a far-to-the-right conservative would be to Boxer's advantage. Republicans account for less than a third of registered voters in California and have had difficulty winning statewide offices.
Only candidates who can appeal to centrists and the 20 percent of voters who are registered as independents have a credible chance of success. Campbell said his government experience and economic background make him the best candidate to attract those voters and defeat Boxer.
"I think I'm right that the contrast with Senator Boxer, that's going to get independent voters and fiscally responsible Democratic voters to vote for a Republican," Campbell said after his news conference Friday.
Fiorina's campaign responded swiftly to the added competition in the Senate race, casting her as the fresh face against a field of political insiders. It also noted that Campbell has advocated a temporary increase in the state gasoline tax to help California close its $20 billion budget deficit.
"Carly remains the only political outsider running in both the primary and general," said Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Fiorina. "All the other candidates are career politicians, and we think voters are sick and tired of those who are responsible for creating the mess we are in."
However the Campbell shift plays out in the months ahead, it's evidence that there is far more interest in the Republican side of the ticket this year than with the Democrats in California. Boxer is an incumbent who faces no major challenger, and Brown stands alone in his unofficial run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Republicans believe they have a strong field of candidates and hope voters who are frustrated with the economy will be in the mood to give them a long look.
"There will be much greater interest in this election," said former Gov. Pete Wilson, who is chairman of Whitman's campaign.