Boardroom battlers fight it out on West Coast

Two women are using their vast fortunes to win over voters in California
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There was a time when California preferred its politicians to have notched up a long and at least moderately-successful acting career. These days, things are different: with the state's Republican voters heading to the polls to select their candidates for November's midterm elections, the party is poised to endorse not one but two power-suited businesswomen who made billions of dollars shattering glass ceilings as Silicon Valley CEOs.

In the Governor's race, Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of Ebay, carries a 2-1 poll lead over her nearest rival, Steve Poizner, into today's primary. The battle for the Republican Senate nomination is meanwhile headed by Carly Fiorina, who ran Hewlett-Packard. She boasts the support of 37 per cent of party members; her nearest rivals, Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore, have just 22 and 19 per cent respectively.

Both female candidates are stressing their conservative credentials and ability to bring a businesslike rigour to the political arena by cutting both tax and spending to combat California's huge public deficits and unemployment rate of 12 per cent. They are also taking overtly right-wing positions on totemic, if somewhat divisive, issues like abortion, gay marriage, and immigration.

Thanks to their vast fortunes, and lack of previous political experience, they're also able to invest unheard-of sums in advertisements touting their Tea Party-friendly "outsider" status.

Ms Whitman has ploughed $81m (£56m) into her campaign, and is spending at a rate of $500,000 a day. Ms Fiorina has invested a more modest $5m from her own funds, but her financial resources still dwarf those of her rivals.

If they do win, the result will be yet another ominous sign for Barack Obama in advance of November's elections for every House seat, and a third of Senate seats. Sentiment is running against both centrists and incumbents and California – as America's most populous state, with a habit of electing high-profile politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan – is a yardstick of national opinion.

Ms Fiorina, 55, cut her political teeth during the last presidential election, when she was an economic adviser to John McCain and (prior to the nomination of Sarah Palin) a front-runner for the vice presidential nomination. Ms Palin is now a leading backer, saying that she has the best chance of beating the Democratic incumbent, Barbara Boxer, and of "putting an end" to the Obama administration's "big government agenda".

In years gone by, Ms Fiorina was named by Fortune magazine as the most powerful woman in business during her stint at the helm of Hewlett-Packard from 1999-2005, and has battled breast cancer.

She now claims to be cancer-free, and has repeatedly used campaign speeches to remind audiences that her short hair is a result of that struggle. "Having gotten through that experience," she told a recent audience, "let me tell you this: a sharp-tongued Senator with an invisible legislative record does not intimidate me one bit. I say: 'Bring it on. Bring it on, Barbara Boxer!'"

Critics have focused on Ms Fiorina's CV, pointing out that her time at Hewlett-Packard saw the company's stock price halve. She has been criticised for having outsourced thousands of the American company's jobs overseas during a global expansion which also saw the firm accused of using bribery to enter the lucrative Russian market.

Both Ms Whitman and Ms Fiorina have been forced to express regret after it emerged that they didn't bother to vote for several years, adding grist to the mill of those who have described them as wealthy political gadflies who are attempting to buy their way into office.

Both candidates have also invested considerable sums in attack adverts billing their Republican rivals as insufficiently conservative. Ms Fiorina issued one that controversially portrayed her opponents as Satanic sheep with glowing red eyes. Ms Whitman's ubiquitous TV ads describe Mr Poizner as "just another liberal Sacramento politician".

Recent days have also seen them take conspicuously right-wing stances on the topics that happen to be dominating the news agenda. At weekend rallies, Ms Whitman and Ms Fiorina voiced strident support for Israel's blockade of Gaza and spoke out in favour of Arizona's tough new laws combating illegal immigration.

Those efforts now look likely to secure the Republican nominations. Whether they will also win office in a traditionally Democratic state is a different matter.

The CVs

Carly Fiorina
Age: 55
Children: Two stepdaughters (one deceased)
Previous jobs: The CEO of Hewlett-Packard for more than five years and the only woman to have led a Fortune 20 company; before that, she was a senior executive at AT&T
Political experience: Adviser for John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008
Endorsements: "Carly is the commonsense Conservative that California needs and our country could sure use in these trying times" – Sarah Palin

Meg Whitman
Age: 53
Children: Two sons
Previous jobs: Chief executive of eBay, which she ran from its early days until 2008
Political experience: She also cut her political teeth acting as an adviser for McCain's campaign
Endorsements: "I believe Meg Whitman can do for California what Ronald Reagan did for America" – Dick Cheney