Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner spoke talking points and policy for the most part in their first debate last night in Orange County. The two candidates tried to cut each other but there were no big bombs hurled at the debate after weeks of nasty charges made back and forth.

The focus of the debate centered on two major issues that Poizner emphasized to separate himself from Whitman: an-all-out tough stand on illegal immigration and across-the-board tax cuts.

Poizner attempted to distinguish himself as a bold reformer taking the path that few are too squeamish to follow. Cut taxes across-the-board and pull the benefit rug out from under all illegal immigrants. “Turn the magnets off” that draw illegal immigrants to California, he demanded.

Whitman would not go as far putting out a plan to control illegal immigration by eliminating sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants and requiring verification to determine workers are in the country properly.

Given the rebuke the GOP received from the Latino community and others over Proposition 187, some observers were surprised at Poizner’s insistence that illegal immigration be a cornerstone of his campaign. But, the Insurance Commissioner believes he’s tapped into a hot vein of concern for California voters. He may be on to something. Conan Nolan, the KNBC-Los Angeles political reporter who moderated the debate with aplomb, admitted later that a great number of questions that came to him through the website of the debate host New Majority dealt with the question of illegal immigrants.

Poizner drew another sharp difference with Whitman on the tax question. He argued his plan for across the board tax cuts of 10-percent and a 50-percent cut in the capital gains tax would immediately generate jobs. Whitman said spending needed to be controlled first with tax cuts targeted for job creation.

In defending her taxpayer credentials, Whitman pulled out the shield of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s endorsement of her, arguing that Poizner was not a true tax cutter. She echoed the argument that is running in her many ads — Poizner tried to weaken Proposition 13 by donating heavily to pass Proposition 39 in 2000, a measure to lower the vote requirement to pass school construction bonds from two-thirds vote to 55%.

(A historical note here. While Proposition 39 clearly undercut the notion of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, a bulwark of Proposition 13, the initiative measure was not technically a change in Proposition 13, itself. The requirement for a two-thirds vote to raise property taxes to pay for local general obligation bonds was established in the 1879 constitution. Proposition 39 did not change Proposition 13, but a law that existed 99 years prior to Prop 13. For the record, I worked on the No on 39 campaign.)

Poizner’s goal in setting himself up as the self-described “game changer candidate” is intended to convince voters major reforms can only come in difficult periods. This is the time to have someone at the helm of government who is willing to attempt the impossible, he insisted.

Whitman emphasized a business-like approach. Do what businesses do in tough times, she said. Cut spending, re-do the business model, and make long term plans. She said California must consider not only its immediate budget problems but look today toward the budgets of two and three years down the road.

Whitman’s solid performance means she will maintain her frontrunner position in post debate polling. Poizner continues to hope that his embrace of contentious issues will catch fire with voters.