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Gov. Jerry Brown brings decades of experience to Thursday's debate

Gov. Jerry Brown brings decades of experience to Thursday's debate
Gov. Jerry Brown shakes hands with supporters at the Bonaventure Hotel after his victory in his 1978 reelection campaign. He's running for a fourth term this year. (Los Angeles Times)

When Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor, steps into a television studio with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday night, he'll be facing one of the most experienced debaters in American politics.

Brown has participated in no fewer than 14 debates, panel discussions and joint appearances with general election opponents while running for governor during a political career spanning more than four decades.

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And there were three failed presidential campaigns and an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

"Experience really does make you better at this kind of stuff," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Kashkari, on the other hand, has never run for elective office before. He does have some experience in the hot seat as a U.S. Treasury official, defending the $700-billion Wall Street bailout he ran, during politically charged congressional hearings.

Brown will debate Kashkari only once, said his campaign spokesman, Dan Newman, meaning Thursday's event will be his last debate as a candidate for governor.

When he sought the governor's office for the first time in 1974, he participated in six debates while battling Houston Flournoy, the Republican state controller. Flournoy, who was nine years older than Brown, called him "Jerry" and accused him of being nothing more than the beneficiary of a famous last name. (His father, Pat Brown, had served two terms as California governor.)

After winning the 1974 election, Jerry Brown ran for reelection against Evelle Younger, the Republican attorney general. They faced each other four times, and during the last debate Younger said he would make a better governor because he wasn't a bachelor like Brown.

When Brown sought the governor's office again in 2010, he went up against Republican Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay. They had three debates and one panel discussion. During the first event, Brown was loose and humorous, cracking jokes about closing down Sacramento bars in his younger days.

The second and third debates were dominated by campaign controversies -- the revelation that Whitman had employed and then fired a housekeeper who was in the country illegally, and then a recording of a Brown associate who had called Whitman a political "whore."

Some of Brown's most memorable debate moments came not during campaigns for governor.

In 1982, while running for U.S. Senate, he tried to stump Republican opponent Pete Wilson, then the mayor of San Diego, with a question about the African country of Namibia. Wilson fired back with a quick answer, blunting Brown's attempt to show off his knowledge of world affairs.

A decade later, Brown faced off with Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary.

Brown accused Clinton of "funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business." Clinton denied the charge and shot back, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You're not worth being on the same platform as my wife."

David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State, said Brown is much more likely to stay on message during his debate with Kashkari.

"He went from an unconventional whiz kid from a political dynasty, who talked about ideas that were avant garde, to a politician who is more disciplined, more focused," he said.

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Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

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