There are several clever mantras that Meg Whitman chants while she's campaigning to be the next governor of California: "Don't try to boil the ocean" (taking too broad of an agenda to Sacramento), "All roads lead to Florida" (a model of how to fix the education system), "I am not 'kumbaya' about this" (she understands the difficulty of being governor) and, finally, the kind of oversimplified sound bite that is especially maddening to her critics, "You've got to find 20% of the reforms that will get you 80% of the way home."
One afternoon in late October, Whitman, 53, was pulling all the jingles out, like clubs from a golf bag. It was the sort of performance that the former CEO of eBay and newcomer to the whirlpool known as electoral politics has become almost slick at delivering. She was standing on a platform, microphone in hand, at the edge of a beautiful garden in the wealthy desert enclave of Rancho Mirage, a town described as a "hotbed of GOP cash" by an attendee. She is no longer the frumpy corporate mascot who was once photographed in a beige turtleneck and high-waisted slacks, surrounded by a team of Silicon Valley executives. The new Whitman wears a lean, dark suit with a camisole peeking tastefully out and stylish heels, her face dusted with a California glow.
"Let me tell you about my mother," she said, not for the first time that week. She talked about Margaret Whitman Sr.'s daring service as an airplane and truck mechanic for the Red Cross in New Guinea during World War II and how it motivated the younger Meg. She rattled off her own accomplishments college at Princeton followed by Harvard Business School, her move to San Francisco with her neurosurgeon husband, her transformation of eBay from a midsize start-up into a high-tech powerhouse while raising two boys, her postretirement role as an adviser to Mitt Romney and later Senator John McCain during his presidential campaign. "They inspired me to think beyond a career in business," Whitman said.
Most of the questions at the end were fairly standard for a conservative Southern California crowd. "Can you talk about the unions and their stranglehold on Sacramento?" asked a woman in the audience. A second woman asked Whitman about the threat of pregnant illegal immigrants who cross the border to win citizenship for their newborns. Then a third woman piped in, rather timidly, asking, "How can we keep religious radicals out of our party? I think that's why they've lost a lot of votes, with the opposition of gay inclusion or opposing women's choice."
Whitman paused, almost as if it were the first time that day that she had to think about her answer. "I am happy to tell people where I stand on the social issues, but I think, as Republicans and Californians, we have to lead with the things that will make the most difference in the near term," she said. "I don't want to exclude anyone from the party. I don't want to exclude anyone from my campaign. I want everyone to be a part of this. But let's rally around what we can mostly agree on."