Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, September 27, 2010
(09-26) 17:47 PDT San Francisco — Republican Meg Whitman, backed by an army of veteran campaign strategists, sticks relentlessly to script. Democrat Jerry Brown flies solo and speaks off-the-cuff – sometimes to his detriment.
California’s two very different gubernatorial candidates, who’ve been sniping at each other for months on the airwaves, will finally meet face to face Tuesday in their first televised debate.
The high-stakes event, which poses plenty of challenges for both, could break their campaign deadlock, while helping the nearly 1 in 5 California voters who have yet to decide choose a candidate.
Whitman, the former eBay CEO running in her first political race, and Brown, the state’s attorney general and former two-term governor who has been a fixture in state politics for more than 40 years, must avoid a host of pitfalls as they hit the stage at UC Davis for the 6 p.m. showdown, to be aired in the Bay Area on KTVU.
With about a week until voters begin receiving mail-in ballots, and fewer than 40 days until the Nov. 2 election, Tuesday’s matchup provides a crucial opportunity for voters to see the candidates outside of the confines of their carefully constructed campaign messages.
In a Field Poll released last week, Brown and Whitman were tied at 41 percent, with 18 percent of the voters undecided. The two candidates also were nearly even on their appeal to independents, women and Latino voters.
But in a USC/Los Angeles Times poll released over the weekend, Brown led Whitman by five points among likely voters, 49 to 44 percent; Brown also enjoyed a double-digit advantage over Whitman among likely Latino voters, and had a six-point advantage among independents, who make up 20 percent of the state’s electorate.
With just hours to go until the first face-to-face matchup, both campaigns sought to lower expectations.
“Gov. Brown enters into the debate arena with a huge advantage,” said Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds. “He’s debated 40 times. He may be the most experienced professional political debater that California has ever seen, and it’s a real challenge.”
Sterling Clifford, spokesman for Brown, said Whitman “proved to be a more than capable debater (during the GOP primary). She can deliver talking points with the best of them, and she’s had more than two years of politicking to polish her stump speech. So we expect her to make a formidable presentation on Tuesday.”
The challenge for Brown, who often tends toward lofty discussion of policy and philosophy, will rest on his discipline, political experts say: He must sharpen his message, make it accessible to average voters, avoid ad libs and not allow Whitman – who has repeatedly branded him a political “failure” – to get under his skin.
Brown, also a former Oakland mayor and secretary of state, has an added challenge: He’s never faced a woman or a first-time candidate before at this level, and he must not appear strident or condescending in facing a challenge from Whitman, experts say.
Whitman, whose campaign has rarely veered from its disciplined messaging, faces her own challenges: She’s up against an experienced politician who is well known for being knowledgeable on the details of governance and has years of experience in televised debates and campaign communication.
She must show that she is ready to get out from behind campaign slogans to discuss, in detail, her understanding of policy and her vision of governance, experts say. But she’ll have to stay cool with the inevitable barbs about her spotty voting record and her role as a billionaire CEO and former Goldman Sachs board member.
“If the challenge is for Jerry to connect with voters in a way that is real and personal, for her it is to connect in a way that has credibility because her campaign is heavy on generalities – and in debates, you can’t talk themes,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and onetime adviser to former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson.
Vikram Amar, associate dean and professor of law at UC Davis, said Tuesday’s debate presents a rare chance to leave behind the 30-second TV spots and delve into the candidates’ mind-sets on key issues – especially the economy – for a discussion that more thoroughly explains their positions.
Brown has talked about “devolving power from the state to the local level, closer to the people,” said Amar. “Exactly how would that work?
“Whitman has thrown out the idea of reducing the state workforce and slashing welfare to pay for higher education,” he added, but her plans are “devoid of a lot of specifics. Precisely how will that free up the money she says?”
Amar hopes the debate panel will press candidates on how their unique experiences would serve the people.
Whitman “has a high profile and a track record of business success and a few ideas that sound sensible – but at that level of generality, so did (Gov. Arnold) Schwarzenegger,” he said. “The lack of experience meant he got nothing done.”
Brown, too, must explain why his political experience would be such an asset when so many voters this year aren’t enthralled with incumbents.
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