SACRAMENTO — Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner released another devastating television ad Friday — this one titled "Vulture" — attacking his GOP rival Meg Whitman for her ties to the maligned investment firm Goldman Sachs.

The TV spot, being aired around the state just before Sunday's final televised Republican debate and available on YouTube, is just another in a series of blows Poizner has delivered over the last several weeks — aimed at cutting into Whitman's lead by targeting conservative voters.

And now, as the candidates enter the final five weeks of the primary season, a clash of epic proportions is expected. Poizner has finally begun to draw on the $19 million of his personal wealth he's hoarded for so long and Whitman will be forced to continue making massive withdrawals from her even larger bank account — possibly beyond the $59 million she has poured into the campaign already.

"It's not going to be a coronation now," Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said. "It looks like they're going to have to sweat it out. Poizner is definitely making an impact and us Democrats will be on the sidelines cheering him on."

Cheering him on, if only to see how much damage he can inflict on Whitman, the perceived front-runner who is still expected to be the Republican nominee, taking on presumed Democratic nominee Jerry Brown in November.

Whitman's lead in the polls, though, once as high as 50 percentage points, was down to 22 — 49 percent to 27 — in a USA Survey last week. With more statewide polls scheduled to be released in coming weeks, the state of the campaign should come into sharp relief soon.

The newly aggressive phase of Poizner's campaign has forced Whitman to abandon her general election strategy and fight back with a renewed focus on the primary battle, political observers said.

Poizner's most recent ad campaign includes a spirited endorsement by conservative hero U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock. It piggybacks on previous ads deriding Whitman for endorsing Sen. Barbara Boxer, and for allegedly holding similar immigration views as President Barack Obama.

Whitman has aired a number of ads mocking Poizner's conservative credentials, and on Friday, her campaign threatened to roll out footage of Poizner's previous debates, in which he staked out moderate positions as he ran in 2004 for a liberal Assembly seat that straddles Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Poizner's campaign quickly retorted with its own tape showing President Bill Clinton thanking Whitman at an April 2000 Democratic Leadership Council event at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, the same locale for Sunday's debate.

In a week that saw Whitman appearing to be knocked off her stride by reports of her ties to Goldman Sachs, it's Poizner who's now on the offensive after being considered an afterthought for much of the long campaign.

"Any time you cut a lead in half, it says something," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political-science professor. "But, he's still got a mountain to climb."

Poizner has to make a quick sale to voters who will begin filing absentee ballots May 10.

Poizner will need the convergence of three factors to pull out a victory, said Jon Fleischman, a Republican state party officer and publisher of conservative Web site Flash Report.

"He has to have the perfect message, whatever that is; unions have to hit Whitman hard, and Whitman has to stumble," Fleischman said. "The latest ads on Goldman Sachs shows he's going for the jugular."

Whitman, meanwhile, needs to make a direct appeal to core Republican voters, he said.

"Then it'll be very difficult for Poizner," he said. "It's Whitman's race to lose."

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.

sunday's GOP debate
  • WHO: Republican gubernatorial candidates Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman
  • WHEN: 5 p.m. Sunday
  • WHERE: Tech Museum
    of Innovation, San Jose
  • COVERAGE: The debate will be broadcast by KTVU Channel 2 and Comcast Hometown Network Channel 104. It also will be available online on the California Channel at www.calchannel.com and on KQED-FM radio and its 27 affiliates.