It's hard to turn off Meg Whitman.
The most expensive campaign for governor in U.S. history — about $162 million and counting — is inundating California voters with an unprecedented array of TV and radio ads, glossy magazines, smartphone messages, Facebook videos, postcards and phone calls that will test how far a Republican dollar can go in a state Democrats often dominate.
A typical TV viewer in Los Angeles will see 23 of her commercials this week alone, many roughing up Democrat Jerry Brown, according to Democrats tracking her ad buys. The story of the Silicon Valley billionaire is being told in four languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. There are book-like mailers, billboards and text messages reaching voters and supporters, all while she's jetting to appearances across the state.
It costs about $3 million for a candidate to blanket California with TV ads for one week, but from October 10-17 her campaign spent $4.6 million, underscoring the urgency of the effort and pushing her message from Spanish-speaking households near Los Angeles to rural areas on the Oregon border.
'People need to see me'
Still, it might not be enough. Brown, after being outspent 6-1 through mid-October, opened up a slight edge in recent polls. Even Whitman appeared to concede last week that many voters in the economically battered state — unemployment is 12.4 percent — don't know her.
"People need to see me. They see me on TV. They see me on the Internet. But they haven't seen me in real life," Whitman said in Los Angeles. "I want people to know I care."
At an appearance Tuesday in Long Beach, Brown said he would take down his negative TV ads if Whitman agreed to do the same. His ads, laced with unflattering photographs of his rival, pound Whitman for her spotty voting record and employing an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. (Whitman says the maid used a fraudulently obtained Social Security card and California driver's license; she fired her after learning of her illegal status.)
Responding to Brown's challenge, Whitman said she would continue to run ads on Brown's record as governor from 1975 to 1983. "I want to make sure that people really understand what's going on here," she said.
In TV ads, Whitman warns that Brown's election will mean the status quo in Sacramento, something voters can't afford. "Just a dishonest politician, trying to hide his record of failure," one ad says. "Job killer, Jerry Brown."
Record spending stands out
The record spending has been going on for months and stands out strikingly in a state facing a budget crisis that will demand austerity for years to come. Outgoing Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has stayed quiet in the campaign, will leave behind a multibillion-dollar deficit for his successor.
A first-time candidate, Whitman, eBay's former chief executive, has invested $142 million of her Internet fortune so far, most of it for ads to introduce her to the state's 17 million voters and help overcome a 13-point Democratic edge in registration. She's raised about $30 million from other sources.
The Silicon Valley billionaire has already spent more money than Al Gore used for his 2000 presidential campaign. In the first two weeks of October, her operation burned through an average of $1.4 million a day.
Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds, who would not discuss details of the campaign's ad spending, argued that labor unions and Brown have together funded an equal level of ads in Southern California. "It's like Meg is dueling with multiple gunmen," Bounds said.
TV is viewed as the only practical way for candidates to become known across the sprawling state. The reach of Whitman's ads can be seen in figures compiled by Democrats: Most of the $4.6 million she spent Oct. 11-17 went to broadcast television reaching every corner of the state, but she also pumped $275,000 into Spanish-language ads in 10 cities, including Fresno, Bakersfield and Santa Barbara, and sent $560,000 to cable TV stations.
Many voters wince at the deluge of candidate ads as Election Day nears, but not everyone is turning the channel.
If a billionaire, "I would put in $150 million," says Jeff Gendler, 65, a conservative Los Angeles sales manager who plans to vote for Whitman — somewhat uneasily, because he considers her too moderate. As for her ads, "I have no problem with that," he says.
In a year when some candidates are avoiding the media, Whitman is rushing to be seen in the campaign's final days. On Monday, she was in Indio, near Palm Springs, and in suburban Los Angeles. On Tuesday, she appeared in Long Beach. On Wednesday, she made several stops in Southern California, including San Diego and Riverside.
Her supporters can use smartphones to get "exclusive" photos and video and "keep in touch" with Whitman through Facebook and Twitter. She recently sent a color, book-like mailer to independent voters in Los Angeles, written in the first person. "You get to know who someone really is when you learn their story and discover what has made them who they are," it says.
Weeks ago she eclipsed the record for personal spending set by another billionaire, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent $109 million in 2009.
Lesson in the limitations of spending?
Yet she could join other wealthy candidates whose dollars didn't translate into victory. In his failed 1992 presidential race, Ross Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money. In California, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was re-elected in 1994 after being outspent 2-1 by Republican Michael Huffington, who used $28 million from his own wallet.
In a year of runaway political spending, California could be a lesson in its limitations. Republican Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, loaned her campaign $1 million last week, raising her contributions this year to $6.5 million in her bid to oust Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Whitman can spend as much of her personal fortune as she wishes. But Brown and other candidates who rely on donations must comply with fundraising caps that make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep pace. The maximum donation to a candidate for governor is $25,900 for the primary election and that amount again for the general election.
Whitman says the record-level spending is needed to offset the influence of public employee unions, which have spent some $20 million on Brown's behalf. Her public appearances have been hounded by union activists, who have accused her of trying to buy the election.
"I'm up against some pretty big entrenched interests," Whitman has said. "My job is to spend money to get out this message."
However, her torrent of spending has started talk about expanding those limits for statewide candidates.
"We are starving the candidates to death," says Democratic consultant Garry South, "and shifting the balance of power."