When Steve Poizner’s TV ad talks about “the Whitman/Obama policy” on immigration, California voters are seeing the themes he’s hoping can carry him to victory in the GOP primary for governor.

From now until June, expect to see Poizner pound on two points. First, that he’s the conservative candidate who will be toughest on illegal immigration and, second, that Meg Whitman is no real Republican.

Recent polls show Poizner running a staggering 50 percentage points behind the former eBay CEO, who’s spent better than $46 million on her campaign, with plenty more to come. The only way to trim that type of lead is with an all-attack, all-the-time strategy aimed at shocking the hard-core conservatives who make up a major chunk of the voters in a Republican primary.

That’s why you can bet that Poizner’s oppo research folks are combing photo galleries for any picture of Whitman with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, just the thing to feature in the inevitable TV spot that will talk about how Whitman endorsed Boxer in 2004.

The state insurance commissioner already has a web site, “Real Meg Whitman,” that’s test-marketing some of the charges he’s going to be taking statewide in the next two-plus months.

Poizner knows he can’t go wrong with GOP conservatives if he can keep linking Whitman to President Obama and his policies. He’s already arguing that she backed the president’s stimulus plan, endorsed the bank bailout and said she was a “huge fan” of Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who is a long-time target for conservative activists.

Expect to see plenty of Poizner ads that feature Whitman and Obama sharing the screen.

Poizner’s effort to make illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign also has the feel of political calculation. Writing in this space earlier this week, Tony Quinn, a GOP political commentator, called the focus on immigration “Poizner’s Suicidal Mission” and argued it would doom him in a general election.

But when you’re as far behind as Poizner, it’s first things first. In order to worry about the November election, you first have to get through the GOP primary. And illegal immigration will play well in June.

A Field Poll released earlier this week showed only 37 percent of California’s registered voters believe illegal immigration is one of the most important issues that will shape their vote in the governor’s race. But that percentage jumps to 58 percent among Republicans and could be even higher among the conservatives most likely to vote in the primary.

How conservative – and anti-Obama — are the California Republicans Poizner is appealing to? Well, another Field poll from January found that 20 percent of registered Republicans don’t believe President Obama was born in the United States while another 38 percent said they don’t know or aren’t sure.

And while the number of Latinos registered to vote in California has exploded since former Gov. Pete Wilson used Prop. 187 and a hard line on illegal immigration to get re-elected in 1994, not many of them vote in a GOP primary.

Poizner’s “Mr. Conservative” persona has a few cracks that Whitman will be exploiting. He’s had a hard time explaining away his $10,000 contribution to Democrat Al Gore’s Florida recount committee after the 2000 presidential election and his support of an initiative that made it easier to pass school bonds doesn’t sit well with anti-tax Republicans.

Whitman also has put up an anti-Poizner web site that takes its own shots at the insurance commissioner’s GOP credentials, in one case putting his picture side by side with that of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and cheerfully announcing that “on taxes, they’re two of a kind.”

But Poizner is convinced that Whitman’s lead in the polls is more the result of her money than her political appeal. He’s also betting that in a no-holds-barred political slugfest, he can take a better punch than Whitman and damage her with those Republicans most likely to vote in June.

It’s a longshot. But for a guy as far behind as Poizner, it’s likely his only shot.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.