Whitman also wants to push budget and decision-making authority away from Sacramento and down to individual schools. Accomplishing this, she says, will require taking a tougher line with the powerful California Teachers Association.
"Republicans should own education because we can take a stand that is not in lockstep" with the unions, said Whitman.
As important as her stances on jobs, spending, and education are, Whitman's chances of winning in November may be influenced just as much by the hot-button issues that she is de-emphasizing as she battles former Rep. Tom Campbell and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for the GOP's gubernatorial nod.
Conservative stances on abortion hurt Republican gubernatorial candidates in California in the 1998 and 2002 general elections. Whitman, who supports abortion rights, is hoping to take the issue off the table in the general election by saying that her focus is elsewhere.
Poizner, one of Whitman's rivals, has hammered the former eBay CEO for supporting public funding of abortion for poor women through the state's Medicaid program, but so far he has struggled to gain traction, trailing not only Whitman but also Campbell in public opinion polls.
Asked what her goals would be in the area of abortion, Whitman said, "You know, it isn't at the top of my list. It is largely a federal issue. Much of the issues on how California money is spent is decided by the courts. So I wouldn't actually be making recommendations to change any of that. I want to spend 100 percent of my time focused on what I think I can make the biggest difference on as the governor of California."
Whitman is also working to improve the GOP's performance with the state's sizable Latino population by distancing herself from Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure championed by former Gov. Pete Wilson (R) which was designed to prohibit illegal immigrants from using social services, health care, and public education in California.
Even though Wilson was the first big-name Republican to join her campaign, Whitman says that 187 was bad policy and she agrees with a court ruling which gutted key provisions of it.
"With regards to 187, this has been well decided by the courts, we must provide services to children. And this is the right thing to do and was rightly decided by the court," said Whitman in response to an audience question. "We need to move beyond this."
While opposing liberal Democratic calls to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, Whitman is trying to improve the GOP's reputation with Latinos by saying she supports "comprehensive immigration reform," federal legislation which includes earned legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
Asked if she has received criticism from conservative Anglo voters for distancing herself from 187, Whitman said, "I have not felt too much pushback on something like 187. People understand that it was struck down by the courts and then I talk about securing the border, holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers, and ending sanctuary cities."
Wealthy candidates have not had a good track record getting elected to top posts in California: Michael Huffington, a 1994 candidate for U.S. Senate, Al Checchi, a 1998 candidate for governor, and Bill Simon, a 2002 candidate for governor, all went down to defeat.