September 28, 2010

Here’s your match-up for tonight’s long-awaited debate between wannabe governors Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman:

A washed-up, tax-and-spend liberal in the pocket of greedy labor unions who want to plunder your pocketbook, boost their pensions and bankrupt California will face off against a mendacious plutocrat who flip-flops on key issues, can’t be bothered to vote and wants to enrich avaricious corporations at the expense of the middle class.

At least that’s how the Republican and Democratic candidates would like you to perceive their rivals at the end of their one-hour televised showdown at UC Davis.

While the 6 p.m. event, is unlikely to draw a large viewing audience (among other things, it’s up against reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The King of Queens”) the post-debate news clips and statewide blanket coverage, analysis and commentary about the showdown, by mainstream media and the blogosphere alike, will largely shape the public impressions and narratives of the final weeks of the race — at a time when most voters are just starting to tune in to the campaign.

It’s one thing to use 30-second spots and political surrogates to call a political opponent a “liar,” an epithet both campaigns repeatedly have aimed at the other, but it’s quite another matter to stand on a stage a few feet away from your foe and make the same bombastic charges face-to-face.

In performing under high political pressure, Brown and Whitman face the same opportunity on substance, but distinctly different challenges on style.

The crucial substantive goal for each is to convince voters he or she has fresh ideas and represents change in contrast to the other’s status quo: Stylistically, Brown must combine his slashing aggressiveness with a civil tone, overcome his prickly defensiveness about his past and ensure his famously iconoclastic candor doesn’t lead him into a verbal blunder; Whitman must break through her air of landed gentry aloofness, reach beyond her robotic recitations of tightly disciplined talking points and show she understands and can connect with real-life problems of real people.

Brown is an experienced debater, but hasn’t been in a big-time political arena in almost two decades and, particularly in debating a woman, must avoid coming across as nasty or indulging his habit of showing contempt for those with whom he disagrees. Voters like a gentleman, so watch for him to call her “Ms. Whitman” and try not to get too personal, while keeping the focus on her plans to cut taxes for the rich and lay off tens of thousands of public employees. He’s likely to cite her wobbly inconsistencies during the campaign on immigration, offshore oil drilling and the Proposition 23 climate change issue to undercut her with Latinos and independents, casting her as a poll-tested market brand.

Whitman likes to stay relentlessly on message, but she turned in a shaky performance in the single high-profile debate of the Republican primary, appearing slow in thinking on her feet and adapting her message when being attacked in real time. Look for her to call Brown “governor,” to position him as the incumbent, but try not to seem heavy-handed in portraying him as a too-old, over-the-hill career politician, to avoid insulting senior citizens, who actually vote. She’ll hammer away at his close ties to labor and blame him for ushering in an era of cushy wages, benefits and pensions for unions, while arguing her ideas for creating private sector jobs trump his record of padding public payrolls.

Brown gets wildly irritated when he feels that someone is mischaracterizing his record as governor or mayor of Oakland, so Whitman will try to keep him talking about his past, goading him with charges that he raised billions in taxes and failed miserably in helping the city’s schools, and forcing him to spend time explaining away anew the slashing charges Bill Clinton made against him in their much-discussed 1992 presidential primary debate, all issues she’s highlighted in her tough ads.

Whitman’s Achilles heel, on the other hand, is her difficulty in admitting a mistake, so Brown may try to make her burn up time insisting she’s not unethical, by resurfacing attacks on how she made a killing on IPO shares from Goldman Sachs, a practice later made illegal, when the investment bank was courting her business as CEO of eBay. Brown will likely link her calls to cut the capital gains tax and regulation on business with GOP fiscal policies that triggered the Wall Street meltdown and the recession.

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