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Published: Sunday, October 2, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Is Mitt Romney the next Meg Whitman?

Mitt Romney is the front-runner in the GOP presidential primary. In recent debates, the former Massachusetts governor has shone while Texas Gov. Rick Perry has stumbled. Those who were hoping for a candidate with more seasoning (Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels), more principle (House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan) or more pizazz (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) are starting to face facts. They're stuck with the dates who actually knocked at the door. And many are thinking that Romney is the Republican likeliest to prevail against President Barack Obama.
My question: Is Romney really the most electable Republican?
That's what the smart money said about Meg Whitman when she ran for California governor in 2010. Like Romney, Whitman boasted that it was a plus that she was not a "career politician." As the former eBay CEO -- who, by the way, used to work on Romney's turf at Bain & Co. -- she claimed the boardroom savvy and leadership style needed to woo voters desperate for a competent executive who could improve California's business climate.
Career politicians such as former California Gov. Pete Wilson rallied behind Whitman. She, they insisted, would be a stronger nominee than California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner or former Rep. Tom Campbell. But after Whitman used her fortune to win the nod, Democrat Jerry Brown trounced her, 54-41 percent.
Now, Romney is not Whitman. He is an experienced candidate and has served in public office. And Whitman didn't help herself by pouring nearly $150 million of her own money into her campaign. She made it too easy for critics (like me) to charge that she was trying to buy the election.
Also, Romney doesn't have to win California to win the White House. But Whitman's loss demonstrates how Democrats can turn private-sector gold into electoral tin. Call it reverse alchemy.
Whitman had the perfect calling card -- eBay, a popular, successful company with big brand identification. No worries. Opponents tied her to another, unpopular corporation, Goldman Sachs, because she had been on the investment firm's board in 2001.
Most voters never have heard of Romney's baby, Bain Capital. If Romney is the GOP nominee, however, folks will hear plenty about every worker layoff and plant closing that occurred under the investment firm's direction.
Career politicians know better than to hire illegal immigrants. Actually, so did Whitman. She went through a service to find a part-time housekeeper. She paid Nicandra Diaz Santillan $23 per hour. When Diaz told Whitman she was undocumented in 2009, Whitman fired her. When Diaz went public in September 2010, the controversy shut down any chance Whitman had of winning the governor's office.
Now, I don't believe for a minute that no Democrats running for office in 2010 ever hired an illegal immigrant. But here's the beauty of the situation: An undocumented worker would not dare expose an elected Democrat.
Before the 2008 election, The Boston Globe tracked down the landscaping firm hired by Romney. Some of the workers apparently were illegal.
There's an impossible standard for non-politician candidates. Romney, it seems, was supposed to check the documents of people who worked for people who worked for him. Reporters seemed to think Whitman was supposed to suspect that Diaz, with her heavy accent, was illegal.
Romney has been running a smooth, professional campaign. When the primary is settled, however, this race will be an entirely different game. The personal attacks will be relentless.
Romney might not have a housekeeper, observed Dan Schnur, a former GOP political strategist and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, but "they're going to come at him with a dozen laid-off factory workers."
If it's Romney vs. Obama, the race will teeter on how Romney is defined -- whether the public sees him as "a battled-tested private-sector jobs creator or an out-of-touch plutocrat layoff artist."
"Whoever wins that fight," quoth Schnur, "wins the election."

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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Herald Editorial Board

Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

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