Pitfalls for Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown to avoid in first debate
Jerry Brown has 40 political debates under his belt, but Tuesday night is Meg Whitman's first. Brown must work not to come off 'prickly' in the first California governor's race debate, analysts say, while Whitman must establish herself.
The seasoned veteran versus. the political novice. Hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of millions. Man versus woman.Skip to next paragraph
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With just five weeks to go until Election Day, Tuesday night’s debate faceoff between Attorney General Jerry Brown, and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is packed full of enough opposites that most analysts are licking their lips with the prospect that one will finally budge the needle of their campaign deadlock. A Field Poll last week showed 41 percent in favor of each, and a USC/Los Angeles Times Poll over the weekend put Mr. Brown ahead 49 to 44 percent, very close to the poll’s margin of error.
In a campaign marked by months of sniping in ad campaigns, both candidates are being uncharacteristically polite in assessing the opposition – some say as a way of lowering expectations for post-debate spin. With so little time left until the vote, neither can afford a sound-bite-size gaffe that can be played on local newscasts or go viral on YouTube, analysts say.
"Since we don’t know how many will be watching, the real impact of this will be in media analysis after the debate,” says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “Both will likely try very hard to stick to their message and end the debate standing with no embarrassments.”
Ms. Jeffe says Brown must be careful not to come off as prickly – which will be difficult for at least three reasons. First, he has a penchant for specific, policy high-mindedness. He is also coming off months of being pummeled as a "political failure" by the highest election spending in American history. On top of this, he is facing a woman for the first time in his career of 40 debates.
“It’s still a bit dangerous to come off [as] prickly against a woman candidate,” says Jeffe.
Other analysts say this is the time and opportunity for both candidates to be specific about their campaign promises, to move beyond the one-liners and platitudes that have characterized their ad campaigns.
"Every poll and focus group we have seen says voters want very specific things the candidates can and will do to make their lives better, immediately,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “They don’t want to hear elevated themes. They want to hear about jobs, clean water, keeping their homes.... They want to know what the candidates are doing to do on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.”
Because Ms. Whitman is a political novice and Brown is a political veteran of several decades, expectations and measures of success will be different for the two, analysts say.