By David Siders
Published: Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 – 1:05 am

Ready your TV and your stomach for an hour of smears, self-aggrandizement and, with any luck, an airing of the issues facing California: Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown meet tonight in Davis for the first of three televised debates.

With the gubernatorial race dead even and only five weeks until Election Day, the stakes are unusually high.

Nearly a fifth of likely voters remain undecided, and Tom Hollihan, a professor of communications at University of Southern California, said the debate is “probably the most significant event leading up to the election.”

Whitman, the Republican nominee and former eBay CEO, will be known to most voters from her TV commercials, a barrage of messages marched out for months by the most expensive self-financed campaign in U.S. history.

It might benefit the billionaire candidate to loosen up tonight, to demonstrate she does not live in a rarified world and to let viewers see how she thinks.

“Not just a slogan,” said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Compound sentences, or sentences that actually manage to capture a fully expressed idea.”

If Whitman is, as Petracca says, the “sound bite queen,” he calls Brown, the Democratic nominee, “Big Gulp.”

Said Petracca: “There’s too much when he opens his mouth.”

It’s not only that Brown’s unscripted remarks include comments he sometimes comes to regret, experts in political discourse say. It’s that he tends to meander when he speaks, an unconstrained style that has no place in the rigid format of a debate.

Brown, the former governor and mayor of Oakland, has a thorough understanding of the complexities of government. But he has a tendency to lecture.

“The question is, ‘Is he going to look competent, knowledgeable? Or is he going to look geeky and wonkish?’ ” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “If he looks geeky and wonkish, people are going to run to the refrigerator.”

Brown can’t afford to lose those viewers.

His TV advertising, nonexistent until recently, has lagged far behind Whitman’s. For the under-funded candidate, one benefit of a debate – and the widespread coverage it commands – is that it’s free.

Like most candidates, both Whitman and Brown have been practicing, insiders say, preparing responses to likely questions and rehearsing with stand-ins.

Brown will likely use the stage to expand on his attack that Whitman, with no political experience, is unprepared to govern.

How Whitman responds is critical.

If she can match Brown’s grasp of government, observers say, she could dismantle an argument central to Brown’s campaign. If she fails to do so, Brown can ratchet it up.

Experts expect Brown to try knocking Whitman off script and Whitman to try inflaming Brown, criticizing his record as governor and mayor of Oakland.

“You and I both know that the discussion of policy is more than likely to come up short,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at University of Southern California.

Still, it might behoove the candidates to be cautious in their attacks. After months and millions of dollars spent berating each other on radio and TV, Whitman and Brown are less likable than ever. Both of them are viewed more unfavorably than favorably by the electorate, according to a Field Poll released last week.

There’s gender to consider, too.

A man who attacks a woman too harshly can be perceived as nastier than when attacking a man, Jeffe said. A woman, meanwhile, must contend with the unfair perception that “when a guy’s aggressive, he’s aggressive; when a woman’s aggressive, she’s bitchy,” she said.

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