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Poizner, Whitman Fight For Support In Valley

By E.j. Schultz / Bee Capitol Bureau

Fresno Republican voter Deena Papagni has been following the governor's race closely for at least two months. But she still can't make up her mind.

Fresno Republican voter Deena Papagni has been following the governor's race closely for at least two months. But she still can't make up her mind.

The owner of a limousine company and a 43-year-old mother, Papagni admires Meg Whitman's business acumen -- but wonders if the former eBay chief executive has what it takes to turn around the state in bad economic times. She likes that Steve Poizner, a former businessman and the current state insurance commissioner, actually has worked in government, but doesn't see him as the potential superstar that Whitman could be.

"She could be fantastic. She could rock our state. Or she could be a dud. We don't know," she said. "Poizner might not be the most amazing person ... but we feel confident in his performance."

With the June 8 election nearing, both candidates are seeking to close the deal with undecided Republican voters in the San Joaquin Valley like Papagni. A traditional GOP stronghold, the eight-county region is home to 12% of Republican voters in the state. While the race might not be won in the Valley, it can be lost here.

"The Valley has become one of the most Republican areas of the state over the last 20 years," said longtime GOP strategist Ken Khachigian. "In a close race, I've always advocated running up the numbers [there] as best you can."

To win, candidates must appeal to the influential agriculture sector -- but the issues can get tricky. Take immigration, for instance.

Both candidates are advocating sanctions for employers who hire undocumented immigrants, including fines and repealing business licenses. The proposals win praise from some conservative voters, but might be too much to take for farms that rely on immigrant labor.

Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League, said he would support such proposals only if federal immigration reform policies were put in place first. Farm groups support federal "AgJOBS" legislation that would provide a legal and stable work force by giving more than 1 million undocumented farmworkers a path to legalization while continuing to work in farming.

"If we have employer verification prior to [reform], our labor availability vanishes overnight," Bedwell said.

Neither campaign gave a specific view on the AgJOBS bill. Poizner opposes any form of amnesty and says guest workers should apply from their home country, his campaign said. Whitman also says she is against amnesty and favors securing the border before changing immigration laws.

While both candidates support denying some taxpayer-funded benefits to undocumented immigrants, only Poizner says undocumented children should not be allowed to attend public schools.

For Papagni, such positions are a turn-off.

"I just think it's too harsh of an approach to come out and just say we have to get rid of these people," she said. "It goes against what this country stands for."

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