Meg Whitman's Brilliant Hiding Game

The eBay exec-turned-GOP candidate is under fire from all sides for refusing to debate her opponents. Joe Mathews on why that’s helping her bid to become California’s next governor.

02.21.10 10:48 PM ET

What does eBay CEO-turned-California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman have in common with Muhammad Ali?

A strategy called rope-a-dope.

Rope-a-dope takes its name from a 1974 fight in Zaire, when the champ spent the first several rounds taking a beating so that his bigger opponent, George Foreman, would exhaust himself from all the punches. Having survived this early assault, Ali knocked out an exhausted Foreman later in the fight.

Meg the Contender is employing a political version of this tactic, letting her opponents—Republican primary rival Steve Poizner and Democrats working in the interests of her likely Democratic opponent in the fall, former Gov. Jerry Brown—attack her relentlessly for refusing to hold press conferences and for declining invitations to debate Poizner.

The trouble for the Republican Poizner and the Democrat Brown is that by constantly attacking her for failing to debate and engage, they lower expectations for Whitman on her weakest point.

The rhetoric behind such attacks is often over the top. The Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who works with a political committee seeking to hurt Whitman’s standing in the polls, recently told the San Jose Mercury News that Whitman is “trying to run an election where she’s purposely not engaged in the democratic process.” And for months, Poizner’s campaign has issued near-daily rants about Whitman’s refusal to accept various invitations to debate. After Whitman declined to join a debate at a future state party convention, Poizner aide Jarrod Agen thundered: “A Republican candidate for governor who is scared to debate in front of hundreds of diehard Republicans will have no chance in a general election against Jerry Brown."

The problem with these blasts against Whitman isn’t that they are false. To the contrary, they are demonstrably true. Whitman has been ducking debates and tough press questions for months.

No, the problem with these attacks is that they are counterproductive politically. They play into Whitman’s hands by allowing her to hide major political weaknesses in plain sight. How’s that? Whitman is a less than compelling speaker, and her time in the corporate world, for all the money it made her, did not teach her any of the dark arts of the political thrust-and-parry. The trouble for the Republican Poizner and the Democrat Brown is that by constantly attacking her for failing to debate and engage, they lower expectations for Whitman on her weakest point.

This is a boon to Whitman. When the former eBay chief does debate and do more press conferences, as is inevitable in a California campaign, she will be graded on a curve. Measured against those submarine-low expectations, Whitman will look good if she is merely mediocre—a bar she’ll almost certainly be able to clear after weeks of preparation.

If Whitman’s strategy sounds familiar, it should. It’s a basic feature of the political playbook of her top strategist Mike Murphy, a well-known figure in national Republican politics.

Murphy used this strategy to greatest effect in California’s 2003 recall election to replace Gov. Gray Davis. Murphy and his client, Arnold Schwarzenegger, decided to skip early debates and limit the movie star’s contact with the press. This produced a flurry of criticism from opponents and the media that Schwarzenegger was ducking hard questions. (As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times then, I was a heavy contributor to that line of criticism.)

Schwarzenegger shrugged off the attacks and kept a busy schedule of public appearances, producing TV pictures of him engaging with voters even as he largely avoided the press.

Whitman, busy making campaign appearances all over the state, has done the same thing.

Schwarzenegger eventually accepted an invitation to just one debate, a now-famous encounter that saw him trade barbs with fellow candidate Arianna Huffington. The movie star was nervous, and far less effective as a speaker than he had been in practice sessions, former aides have said. But expectations for his performance had been so low because of his previous ducking that the debate was scored a triumph. He made big gains in the polls and won the election easily.

Whitman, who has accepted an invitation to a debate next month, also hasn’t suffered to this point for refusing to engage with opponents and press. She has built a 30-point lead on Poizner in some polls. And in a recent Rasmussen poll, she was tied with Brown. If Whitman’s rivals don’t stop throwing haymakers on this subject soon, they’ll knock themselves out.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.