The first four 15-second ads titled "Reasons," which began airing Friday, were accompanied by the start of a new Web site, canttruststeve.com. One ad links Poizner with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in opposing President Bush's tax cuts in 2003.
"Poizner and Pelosi, they're two of a kind," the ad says.
The strategy surprised political observers, who called it an unorthodox play that could only be done by a campaign with seemingly unlimited resources. Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, has invested $39 million of her own personal wealth into her campaign, has already had a pair of statewide biographical ads on the air, and has promised to spend as much as $150 million.
"At best, it's knocking your opponent off stride before he has a chance to start the race," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "At worst, it's making the rubble bounce, bombing a target that's already been destroyed. They're either being very, very cautious or a little bit nervous. Poizner can take some encouragement from this because Whitman wouldn't be doing this if she didn't feel a little bit nervous."
The Poizner campaign said the attack proves the Whitman campaign is still trying to force Poizner from the race. Last month, Whitman's chief strategist, Mike Murphy, sent what Poizner called a threatening e-mail to his campaign promising an all-out war if he didn't get out.
"The reason they're doing that is $600,000 worth of polling that they've done shows that if she's on the same ballot with Steve, the conservative in the race will win," said Jarrod Agen, Poizner's spokesman. "They're trying to tear down Steve because Steve's much more in line with Republican voters."
A more tangible reason is that the Whitman campaign wants to draw Poizner out into a spending brawl right now. They are worried about reports from former Poizner supporters that Poizner had told them he was waiting until the final month of the campaign to dump $16 million worth of attack ads on Whitman.
Whitman's campaign dreads the prospects of such a late onslaught, fearing that though it wouldn't lead to defeat in the primary, it could cripple her for the upcoming general election race with presumable Democratic nominee Jerry Brown.
"Poizner has been clear that he plans to spend $16 million in the last weeks of the campaign," said Sarah Pompei, Whitman's spokeswoman. "We'd rather start the debate sooner than later."
Poizner said earlier this week he had planned all along to start his own advertising campaign earlier than reports suggested. Agen, his spokesman, said the ads will be coming "really" soon.
"Very shortly, (Whitman) will not be the only person on the playing field," Agen said. "Voters need to meet Steve. Our information shows that Steve is unknown by a majority of the electorate. Once they get to know him and see him versus Meg Whitman, they'll vote for him."
Agen called it "very odd" that a candidate so far ahead in the polls would launch an attack on the underdog.
"It's a sign of weakness and they're scared of something to come," Agen said. "It's because she's a flawed candidate."
Agen cited Whitman's $4,000 contribution to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004, her support of public funding for abortion and her support of last year's bank bailout as soft spots they will exploit. Poizner's campaign is also touting news reports that described Whitman as a supporter of Democratic nominee Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
Whitman's campaign, though, said those reports are wrong, and that she donated $1,000 to Bush in 1999.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.