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Debates have brought Whitman and Brown into sharp contrast

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Capitol Journal

OK, we’ve got the message. Rather, the messages.

They’ve been beaten into us.

From Jerry Brown:

He has been training all his life for this moment. He knows what needs to be done in Sacramento and how to do it, how to bash heads and bring the warring factions together. Meg Whitman is an insensitive know-nothing about government who’s out to enrich her rich friends by eliminating the capital gains tax.

From Whitman:

She’s a businesswoman with a fresh approach to Sacramento. She’ll whittle state government down to size and create private-sector jobs. Brown is a political retread with a 40-year career of helping to mess up California. And he’s beholden to unions.

I’ve got a headache.

Three debates are enough, thank you.

Only junkies more addicted to politics than myself — and there can’t be that many — could possibly sit through another of these TV shows.

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That said, watching at least one of the three face-offs was the closest the vast majority of voters will ever get to observing the gubernatorial candidates up close. So they were invaluable.

They also were very repetitive, especially the heavily-scripted Whitman’s performances.

The Republican candidate scored points in much of the news media for being more aggressive in Tuesday night’s debate than she had been in the previous two. But aggressive is not necessarily appealing.

And what was with the constant smile? Or smirk. It looked forced. And it often didn’t compute. Someone doesn’t naturally smile when she’s being accused of selling out to law enforcement unions — selling potential pension favors — for their endorsements.

She denied it, of course, claiming that the rank-and-file officers endorsed her because she’d be “tough on crime.” Somebody would have to be naïve in the extreme to believe that. Unions are about pay, benefits, pensions and working conditions.

Neither candidate came across as particularly likable.

Brown, as in previous debates, was a motor-mouth in overdrive — breathless, arms flailing, seldom pausing to allow viewers time to ingest the verbiage.

And unlike the first debate two weeks earlier, when the Democrat displayed some humor and wit, he hardly even grinned in Tuesday’s confrontation at Dominican University in San Rafael.

Well, there was the one time: after Brown botched a line and awkwardly said that “I’ve got the police chiefs in my back — backing me because they know I’m tough on crime.”

Whitman exuded a gleeful chuckle and interrupted with her version of what Brown had just said: “He’s got the police chiefs in his back pocket.”

“No,” Brown responded, slightly grinning, “Sometimes, unaccustomed as I am to politics, I stumble in one of my phrases.”

That was it for Jerry humor.

I gave the first two debates to Brown, but rate this one a draw.

No huge gaffes. No new revelation. No game-changer.

And maybe not even a real big audience. After all, the eyes of most TV viewers’ undoubtedly were focused on the miners’ rescue in Chile.

If Brown was slightly ahead in the polls before the debate, as some surveys indicate, he still is. But it remains a very tight race.

If there was a debate winner, it was the moderator, retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a journalist of substance who has followed California politics since his stint as a Los Angeles TV correspondent back when Ronald Reagan was running for governor.

Brokaw interjected with a “fact check” on Whitman that one of us California reporters should have mentioned months ago.

When she again charged that the unemployment rate in California had doubled by the time Brown left the governor’s office in 1983, Brokaw pointed out: “It was known as the Ronald Reagan recession.” And he listed five other states with Republican governors that had higher unemployment rates than California. “Just for perspective,” he said.

Brokaw offered the candidates thoughtful questions that often were blown off, especially by Whitman.

His very first, for example:

John F. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address that Americans should ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. But modern candidates compete by promising voters what they’ll do for them. What were Whitman and Brown prepared to ask of the people?

Whitman immediately launched into her stump speech, ignoring the question. She finally got around to briefly saying that voters should support the next governor and be prepared to make “very tough tradeoffs.”

Brown said that California must live within its means and politicians must rise above poison partisanship.

Brokaw asked Whitman whether there was “something you’d like to share with us” about why she didn’t bother to vote in many elections.

“I have lots to say on that,” she replied. But she said very little, only that “I am not proud of my voting record. I was wrong.”

Brokaw’s final question was whether the candidates felt major political reform was needed in Sacramento. “Do we have to rebuild this state from the ground up?”

The best Whitman could come up with was a two-year budget process. Brokaw cut her off when she quickly returned to her unrelated talking points.

Brown said, “Look, I’m going to take the world as I find it.” But he advocated a majority legislative vote for the budget while retaining the two-thirds vote for tax increases. He also said any new spending program should include a revenue source. And there should be more local control.

That would be a start.

Voters by now should know all they need to in order to choose the next governor. The contrasts are stark.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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