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Tom Campbell announced his bid for US Senate at the San Jose Fairmont in downtown San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, January 14, 2010. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

LOS ANGELES — Steve Poizner has racked up "a ton" of frequent flier miles on Southwest Airlines shuttling to Southern California for campaign events. Other than her campaign headquarters in Cupertino, Meg Whitman has three regional campaign offices — in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. And then there's Tom Campbell, who picked up and moved to Orange County last year.

Why are those three contenders for statewide office, as well as Carly Fiorina, Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, investing so much time and money traveling south? They're all from the Bay Area. And they're all running for governor or Senate in a state where 56 percent of the votes are in Southern California, meaning they need to establish themselves in a region that tends to be dubious of its northern kin.

What's a red-meat conservative in Orange County to make of this invasion of Bay Area moderates, lifelong liberals and ex-CEOs?

"Northern Californians scare the hell out of me," said Bob Wilson, 62, a registered nurse (and Republican) from Santa Ana, after enjoying a frozen yogurt on a sunny afternoon in the city of Orange. "Their viewpoints are sometimes extremely liberal."

2010 has emerged as the Year of Northern California, at least when it comes to the elections for governor and Senate. The only southerner in either race, GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine, is trailing badly in the Senate polls.

Not unprecedented


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While this kind of geographic imbalance isn't unprecedented, it is highly unusual. For about five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, northerners held both California Senate seats and the governor's office — Sens. Alan Cranston and S.I. Hayakawa, and Brown during his first go-round as governor.

To put a finer point on it: We northerners may be outnumbered, but at least we're well represented.

This pending northern dominance has yet to dawn on southern voters, if interviews with several of them are any indication. To the extent that they're aware of the roster of candidates, it's mostly of the two Republicans roughing each other up in the gubernatorial primary, Whitman (from Atherton) and Poizner (from Los Gatos).

"I wasn't aware there was a glut," said Stan Simunic, 67, a retired CPA and nonpartisan voter from Orange County. "But it's fine with me, it's all one state."

So how did the Bay Area suddenly become such a dominant incubator of political leadership? Experts in the state's political geography chalk up the slate of northern candidates this year to several factors: the engine of wealth that Silicon Valley has become, producing a rash of ambitious, well-heeled executives who can finance their own campaigns; the growing Democratic voter registration in the Los Angeles area, narrowing the terrain for Republicans to blossom into viable statewide candidates; and pure happenstance.

"With the exception of Schwarzenegger, who's anomalous in a lot of ways, there hasn't been a pool of Republicans from Southern California who are next in line to run statewide," said Ken Miller, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "Instead, their base has increasingly become the Inland Empire and Central Valley, but there's not a lot of (campaign) money in those areas. So you've got this weird situation where Republican candidates are coming from the Bay Area, and they're much more socially moderate than the median voter in a Republican primary."

Villaraigosa's stumble

On the Democratic side, Miller said, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had an ideal platform to launch a bid for governor but decided against it last year, after a bout of bad publicity surrounding the breakup of his marriage and his city's economic troubles. "He would've been a natural," Miller said.

That leaves six Bay Area politicians hustling to establish their Southern California bona fides. Two of them recently moved south. Campbell, a former congressman, set up house in Irvine last year to run for governor and teach law (he ditched the governor's race in January to run for Senate). But Campbell, who represented Silicon Valley in Congress for five terms and taught law at Stanford, still owns a home in San Jose. Campbell said it's unclear where he'll eventually settle — he and his wife are looking at property at both ends of the state.

And the person Campbell is gunning to unseat, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, moved to Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, in 2006 from Marin County, where she launched her political career in the early '70s. But she also owns a condo in Oakland. And Brown, the gubernatorial candidate who calls Oakland home, lived in Los Angeles for stretches of his career.

As for Senate candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, she has stayed put in Los Altos Hills.

Campbell, who's making his third run for Senate, said his move south was motivated by his desire to better understand what's weighing on the minds of voters there.

Southern strategy

"When I ran in 1992, I lost the Republican primary by two points," Campbell, the front-runner in the current GOP Senate primary, said in an interview. "And I would've done better, I'm convinced, if I was more familiar with the issues of Southern California." This time around, he said, "I thought if I ran statewide, I would get the benefit from learning the thousand-and-one things you don't know about a place unless you live there."

But Campbell's move south also allows him to counter the "Bay Area Republican" tag, a not-insignificant consideration, said Thad Kousser, a visiting professor at Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West.

"For a lot of Southern California Republicans, 'Bay Area' is still a slur," Kousser said. Indeed, at one recent campaign appearance before a group of GOP activists in the San Fernando Valley, DeVore dismissed Campbell as "that old Bay Area, Rockefeller type of Republican."

During a speech to a group of workers at a MillerCoors brewing plant in Irwindale last week, Poizner self-deprecatingly introduced himself as a "Silicon Valley geek." But the former entrepreneur quickly pivoted to his plan for across-the-board tax cuts.

Poizner's shuttle

In an interview afterward, Poizner said he spends "a disproportionate share of my time" campaigning in Southern California, and he was quick to cite statistics about the huge share of voters in that part of the state.

"I'm on Southwest Airlines back and forth all the time," he said. Poizner added that he hasn't detected any anti-Bay Area bias.

"On the campaign trail I don't get the sense that people are thinking, 'Oh, you're from Northern California,' " he said. "The geographic rivalry, I only see that play out on the baseball diamond, not really in the world of politics."

Reading a book on his e-reader and sipping coffee outside a cafe in Orange on a recent morning, Democratic voter Gregory Cohen said as far as he's concerned, the more Northern California candidates running for statewide office, the better. The former Walnut Creek resident, who teaches theater, said Bay Area types "tend to be a little more liberal, a little more enlightened."

"I can't think of anyone from Southern California," Cohen added, "that I'd like to see running the state."

Contact Mike Zapler at 202-662-8921.