The political panel analyzing the coming California election at the annual Milken Institute State of the State Conference in Beverly Hills yesterday spent a good amount of time criticizing the Whitman gubernatorial campaign.

Playing off a recent poll that showed Jerry Brown leading Meg Whitman by seven points, Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, Republican consultant Don Sipple, pundit and former Democratic campaign manager Susan Estrich and panel moderator and Fox TV commentator Frank Luntz disparaged the campaign. Only Republican consultant Steve Schmidt argued that the race was not over and that Whitman was in striking distance of Brown.

Schmidt said there was still time with two weeks to go to frame a message on California’s problems and solutions to those problems that can appeal to voters. His advice was to craft a message about the California dream and show the route to get there. The election is not about the candidate, he said, but about the people living in the state who are facing a myriad of problems.

However, Schmidt said that the gubernatorial campaign so far had come down to a referendum on Whitman, instead of what the Whitman campaign had planned for – a focus on Brown’s record.

Sipple, who admitted he was supporting Brown in this election, said the problem for Whitman was she was attempting to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger and carried a similar background and message to the governor who has low popularity ratings.

Luntz suggested that when Whitman turned from her positive messages she lost ground. He said she was ahead when she was delivering a positive message in her ads, but according to Luntz her campaign had "no second act" to build on her lead.

Carrick argued that Whitman had been damaged by the heated primary contest with Steve Poizner; forcing her to take positions she would like to avoid. Carrick said Republicans have an uphill fight in California because of demographics and the tendency for independent voters to vote Democratic. He called it a "structural firewall" against the Republican wave that seems to be hitting the rest of the country.

The audience was made up largely of business and non-profit organization executives. Luntz asked them whom they favored in the race by clapping for each candidate. Brown clearly outpolled Whitman, perhaps surprising for the audience make-up but perhaps not surprising in a strong Democratic city.