California Democrats target GOP gubernatorial candidate Whitman

Democrats are poised to launch an unprecedented three-pronged spending effort aimed mainly at Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, a billionaire former CEO who's already invested $39 million of her own money in her campaign.

The launch of three independent campaign committees, as confirmed by sources familiar with them, reflects worries among some Democrats that Attorney General Jerry Brown, who's expected to declare his Democratic candidacy for governor, won't be able to keep up with Whitman.

The Republican has already run months of radio ads and a week of television commercials. She has pulled ahead of GOP rival Steve Poizner, another wealthy former CEO, in public opinion polls. Brown, the only likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has been conserving his campaign money.

While state laws limit direct contributions to candidates, no such limits exist for independent expenditure committees, which makes them attractive destinations for big donors. Such committees, however, cannot legally consult with the candidates they benefit.

Labor unions and other big donors are projected to pour at least $20 million into a committee dubbed Level the Playing Field 2010, which plans to start running television ads against Whitman next week. It will also conduct opposition research and launch an online effort.

The committee includes longtime Democratic consultants such as Ace Smith, manager of Brown's 2006 attorney general campaign, and former Clinton administration spokesman Chris Lehane.

"It's true that we've been approached by a powerful coalition looking to level the playing field against the billionaire Republicans trying to buy their way into the governor's office," committee member Dan Newman wrote in an e-mail.

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