Behind Meg Whitman’s bid to save California

March 18, 2009, 11:15 PM UTC

Here’s the new cover of Fortune.

Yes, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is vying for her next big gig–governor of California–Ronald Reagan-style. She’s got a Western look and a simple message: creating jobs, cutting government spending, and improving education. “The three-bucket theory,” Whitman calls it, contending that corporate employees and voters as well need clear, memorable messaging from leaders of any kind.

The horse on the cover, Brandy, isn’t Whitman’s, but she does ride in Telluride, Colorado, where she and her neurosurgeon husband, Griff, have a vacation home. During our cover shoot in Half Moon Bay, California, Brandy was so spirited  that the candidate had to show off her riding chops to keep the horse from throwing her or running away.

The story, which you can read by clicking here, is a Fortune exclusive. I spent three days with Whitman during her first week on the campaign trail. Indeed, she’s a political novice, and she left eBay with real problems in her wake. But don’t discount this onetime star of the Fortune Most Powerful Women list, who ranked No. 1 in 2004 and 2005. Whitman has quite a lineup of business honchos supporting her and helping her raise money. This 2010 California governor race, by the way, is due to be the most expensive gubernatorial race in history. Whitman told me that she might spend $50 million of her own money on her campaign.

So who are these business bigwwigs backing Whitman? I had room in the story to mention only a few: Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, Cisco CEO John Chambers, Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy, Activision Blizzard chief Bobby Kotick, Morgan Stanley technology analyst Mary Meeker, and Marc Andreessen, Netscape’s founder who now chairs Ning.

More Whitman finance co-chairs: TPG Capital buyout ace Dick Boyce (once a neighbor of mine 40 years ago in Allentown, Pennsylvania), Jenny Craig (yes, the weight loss lady), Benchmark Capital partner Bob Kagle (eBay’s early money man), plus Kleiner Perkins partner Floyd Kvamme, former Northwest Airlines chairman Gary Wilson, and ex-eBay COO Maynard Webb, who is now CEO of LiveOpps.

Whitman has a decent shot at capturing the GOP nomination in June of next year. If she does that, her far more daunting challenge will be to beat the Democratic nominee. That could be San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, or attorney general Jerry Brown, who was the Golden State’s governor from 1975 to 1983.

So Whitman has to drum up bipartisan support. She already has some. Andreessen is a Democrat; Kotick is a libertarian. But she could really use the support of influential Dems like David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks Animation chiefs on whose board she served until she resigned in January to pursue the governorship. Some powerful California liberals tell me that Whitman’s anti-gay-marriage stance (while supporting gay civil unions) seriously alienates her from this group. We’ll see if California’s crisis—that is, the notion that a former Fortune 500 CEO can rescue America’s sickest state—wins her the broad support she needs.