How Bill Clinton factors in California governor race

Former President Bill Clinton found himself tossed between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman this week. Clinton endorsed Brown, but how the candidates respond could have more of an impact.

By , Staff writer

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    Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a rally for Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland on Tuesday in Cleveland.
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Former President Bill Clinton endorsed California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown on Tuesday.

Because of the tangled permutations of a ubiquitous Meg Whitman (R) TV ad, Brown’s response to it, and the checkered relationship of Brown and Clinton, the high-profile endorsement will have a convoluted effect on the race, analysts say. Polls find Whitman and Brown in a dead heat with weeks to go before the election.

Clinton found himself interjected into the California governor's race three weeks ago when Whitman began airing an ad with footage of him in a 1992 Presidential debate attempting to dismiss Brown’s claim that he had lowered taxes while governor of California from 1975 to 1983.

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CNN, not me, CNN says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, just plain wrong,” said Clinton at the time. “He doesn’t tell people the truth,” said Clinton in the ’92 footage within Whitman’s ad.

That language contrasts strongly with the following note Clinton sent Tuesday to the Los Angeles Times:

“I strongly support Jerry Brown for governor because I believe he was a fine mayor of Oakland, he's been a very good attorney general, and he would be an excellent governor at a time when California needs his creativity and fiscal prudence."

In an email to the New York Times, Clinton sought to put distance between now and the 1992 campaign.

"The tough campaign we fought 18 years ago is not relevant to the choice facing Californians today. Jerry and I put that behind us a long time ago."

Brown's campaign has asked Whitman’s to withdraw the ad, and has been refused. Analysts say this could backfire on Whitman.

“When it first came out, I thought this was a brilliant ad, but they’ve been running it non-stop and now that Clinton and Brown have made nice and the public knows the claims aren’t true, it’s time to stop airing the ad,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento."The ad could backfire on Whitman," she says. "It doesn’t look good especially if Clinton comes out to campaign for Brown.”

“Whitman simply should not promulgate mistruths in her advertisements,” adds Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies “Clinton’s charges against Brown back in 1992 need to be put in an honest context, since they have been discredited. Negative attack ads are fair game, but mistruths are not.”

Other analysts say Clinton’s endorsement, if played correctly by Brown, will certainly help him.

“Clinton is currently the de facto leader of the Democratic Party,” says Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.” “Moreover, he is popular in the Golden State….”

Before Clinton endorsed Brown, the attorney general went on the offensive to discredit the ad, bringing up the former president's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“You remember, right? There's that whole story there about 'did he or didn't he,' ” said Brown Monday, referring to Clinton's infamous defense of his relationship with Lewinsky. Brown apologized to Clinton soon after making the remark.

Because of all this, some analysts say Clinton has simply out maneuvered Brown by taking the high ground.

“Clinton and Brown have always disliked each other,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “But apparently Clinton thought that it would be in his own interest to endorse Brown. It enhanced his reputation as a party-unifier. It also gave him a chance to look big when Brown looked small.”

“Brown miscalculated with his words,” says Villanova's Brown, “because certainly Clinton is better-liked among Democrats in California than Brown – and he was right to apologize to the former president.”

How it plays with voters from here depends on actions by both Whitman and Brown, say analysts. The California State Department of Finance has supplied Factcheck.org with the precise tax figures on record during Brown’s governorship, and director Brooks Jackson has issued the following: “A story I reported 18 years ago for CNN has recently become an issue in the California governor’s race. Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate, quoted it on her website on Sept. 6. Her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, says I got it wrong. Brown is right; I made a mistake in my 1992 report.”

The ad back-and-forth providers fodder for the spat to continue, says O'Connor. “I suspect Jerry will incorporate this in his next round of ads,” she says. “We’re really talking about the need for both candidates to get the 30 percent of voters calling themselves Independents."

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