By David Siders
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
REDWOOD CITY — On the last day of school at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, Meg Whitman removed her car keys from her pants pocket and smoothed her shirt, while at the back of the room a teacher shushed the crowd.
A year almost to the day after winning the Republican nomination for governor and seven months after collapsing in the general election, there was no bunting and no stage, no country music to introduce her. The billionaire former eBay CEO said her rise in business was "one of those great American success stories."
Her campaign for governor, she said, "didn't work out quite as well."
"There's a saying in politics that if you're explaining, you're losing," she told the students.
And no one last year had more to explain, from her record-breaking spending to her failure to vote in past elections, from her housekeeper scandal to her estrangement from the political press. Whitman held out hope until Election Day, when Jerry Brown beat her by 13 percentage points.
Whitman doubts she will ever again run for elected office, and for many months she said little about the campaign. But she has started popping up recently on radio and TV. For a beaten candidate who wishes to remain relevant in politics — Whitman is advising Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign, and she plans to involve herself in California ballot initiatives — it helps to stay in view.
"You just wonder what would have made a difference, and what might not have made a difference," Whitman said over a bowl of Greek yogurt at her home in Atherton, Calif., week before last. "You just don't know."
Whitman, 54, has settled on a conventional explanation for her defeat. It includes California's Democratic registration advantage, which is the refrain of her supporters, but also the public's objection to her spending $144 million of her own money on the campaign. A bruising primary election exposed her to criticism earlier than Brown, who faced no serious opposition from any Democrat.
Pushed by Steve Poizner, her opponent in the primary, to become more strident in her anti-immigration rhetoric, Whitman alienated many Latinos. The surfacing of her former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, an illegal immigrant Whitman fired, further damaged her.
Whitman said she was unable to separate herself from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the unpopular incumbent to whom she was likened for her lack of political experience. Though she still refers to Brown's decades in politics — "It's like breathing to him," she said — she no longer means it exclusively as an insult.
"Arnold was the newbie, and Jerry was the experienced hand," she said. "And I think the people of California said, 'Boy, that newbie thing didn't actually work out that well.' "
At the charter school, Whitman encouraged the students to takes risks, to use their summers wisely and to pursue work they are passionate about.
When a student asked what qualities are important to running for elected office, she said, "You have to be a good communicator," and also, "You have to have the ability to connect with people."
For most Californians, Whitman didn't. Her image only deteriorated during the course of the campaign, with the percentage of voters who viewed her negatively reaching a majority by Election Day.
"I think people didn't get to know me as well as they might have," she said.
Whitman ran a heavily produced campaign. She said she was only trying to be professional, but she acknowledged it "could be" that she came off as staged. She said she didn't mean to.
"I actually think I am very warm, friendly, fun, easy to be around," she said. "And I think most people actually, who came to my events, actually were quite persuaded. I think actually people did in fact quite like me when they met me in person."
Whitman said she liked stopping at restaurants and other roadside places late in the race, and doing so earlier might have helped. But she doesn't think any one thing would have changed the outcome.
"I gave it my best," she said. "Maybe my best wasn't good enough, but I gave it my very best, and I'm proud of that."
Losing was "like a car into a wall," Whitman said. "You wake up, and there's nothing to do."
She gave up coffee and started swimming again. She vacationed in Mexico with her husband, neurosurgeon Griffith Harsh, and in New Zealand with friends. Eventually, she re-entered corporate life, joining the boards of Hewlett-Packard Co., Procter and Gamble Co. and Zipcar Inc., the car-sharing service. She became a part-time adviser at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
In her return to business, Whitman is trying, as she did at eBay, to help companies expand. On a Skype connection from a conference room at Kleiner Perkins, she discussed executive hiring decisions with the founders of Rent the Runway, a fashion rental company. Last week, she traveled to Beijing and Shanghai with Zipcar, which is considering expanding into China. Summit Public Schools, where Whitman is on the board, is opening two more schools this fall.
She said she plans to support ballot initiatives perhaps as early as this summer, likely involving education policy. She said she will recruit and support Republican candidates for office. She contributed $500, the maximum, to Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher's campaign for San Diego mayor.
Romney was meeting with advisers on the East Coast when Whitman returned from the charter school to her office to join them in a video conference.
Though no Republican presidential candidate is likely to carry California — even Whitman allows that it would be "challenging" — it is a donor-rich state. She is helping Romney raise money and advising him on economic policy.
Whitman, a senior adviser to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain in 2008, was mentioned that year as a possible appointee in a McCain administration. She said she would consider an appointment if Romney is elected but that no position has been discussed.
It was breezy in Atherton when Whitman got home. She was recently back from Princeton University, her alma mater, where her youngest son William Whitman Harsh just graduated and where Whitman rejoined the board.
A riding lawn mower was in the garage, and she said she might mow the lawn.
She also meant to scrub the campaign bumper sticker off her car.
"It's past its prime," she said.
She thought she might put a Romney sticker there instead.
(c) 2011, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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