Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The two major candidates for California governor head into their final televised showdown tonight with a “woman” problem dogging their campaigns – Republican Meg Whitman for her treatment of her undocumented maid, and Democrat Jerry Brown for a staffer’s use of a sexist slur in referring to his opponent.

Tonight’s debate at Dominican University in San Rafael will be moderated by veteran television journalist and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

With California voters casting mail ballots and three weeks until election day, Brokaw will be under pressure to get Whitman, the former eBay CEO, and Brown, the former two-term governor and current state attorney general, to detail their positions and explore new ground at a pivotal moment in the campaign – with polls shifting slightly in Brown’s favor.

The debate comes nearly a week after Brown’s camp faced questions raised by a private conversation last month that was inadvertently recorded on voice mail. In the recording, a campaign staffer characterizes Whitman as a “whore,” an apparent reference to her move to exempt law-enforcement unions from her pension-reform plans to win their endorsement.

Whitman, who has sharply criticized Brown’s support from public employees unions, has received the endorsement of the Los Angeles Police Protective League and a $450,000 infusion from the California Law and Order Independent Expenditure Committee.

Despite her record-breaking campaign spending of more than $150 million, including $121.5 million of her own money, Whitman has fallen behind Brown in the polls after a controversy erupted regarding her hiring and firing of undocumented Mexican immigrant Nicandra Diaz Santillan, her housekeeper from 2000 to 2009.
Combination of goals

The San Rafael event presents the candidates with “a combination of goals,” said Michael Semler, a professor of politics at Cal State Sacramento. “They must reassure their base and get them to the polls, which is critically important for Brown, because Democrats are not as enthusiastic as Republicans” this year.

In addition, Whitman and Brown must make their case to the nearly one-fifth of Californians who are “unmotivated, undecided voters … who are disproportionately women this year,” Semler said.

Both candidates face several potential pitfalls in their third and final debate before the Nov. 2 election, Semler said.

Brown’s team has apologized for what it called “salty” language on the part of an unnamed staffer’s description of Whitman during a discussion over endorsements and pension reform, but the candidate himself has said nothing about the incident.

With the Whitman team attempting to fire up women voters’ outrage over the remark, Semler said Brown will be challenged to “point out the differences between himself and Meg Whitman. But at the same time, he has to be respectful of her, even more than in the past, because of the gender issues.”

Whitman’s responses to questions about her housekeeper are tricky, too.

“When you talk about who has more to lose, it’s Whitman,” Semler said. “She has a tougher road because these are her words, her actions,” and her treatment of the maid she described as like a member of the family, “whereas the (Brown) story is about people who have worked for him; it’s not him,” he said.
Unscripted candidate

Heading to the homestretch, Brown will have to be especially cautious about gaffes, Semler said.

“The dilemma is that Jerry Brown operates under no prepared script. There is charisma and charm, and his knowledge,” he said. “But the question is whether he stays focused, that’s always an issue.”

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