Former eBay chief Whitman meets her challenger

March 3, 2010, 1:42 AM UTC

It’s the newbie against the veteran. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman met her match today as California Attorney General Jerry Brown declared his candidacy.

The former eBay CEO, whom I profiled last spring in a Fortune cover story called “Can Meg Whitman save California?”, now leads her Republican rivals in the gubernatorial race. But she and Brown, a Democrat who served as governor from 1975 to 1983 and ran for President and can’t resist another campaign, are in a dead heat among voters who plan to vote next November 2. The two tied, with 43% each, in a mid-February telephone survey of likely voters, by Rasmussen Reports.

This race will be intense. A story on Politico today says that Whitman’s campaign is building a major opposition research operation to tar Brown. The tarring will be mutual. When I was reporting the Whitman profile (and accompanying her to her first-ever campaign speeches), I called Anne Gust, Brown’s wife whom I know from her previous life as a top exec at Gap . Jerry Brown happened to answer the phone. I mentioned Whitman, and at that, he launched…lacing his take on her with ridicule and respect for her spending power: “‘I ran a business. I can buy my campaign'” he boomed. “I have zero experience in government. I want to take on the most difficult state government job in America. Therefore, make me governor.’ That’s her campaign.”

Yes, this race is on!