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.
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“Whitman’s first task is to convince viewers she knows the ins and outs of political issues,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Poll results show that her relentless assault on Brown in ads has raised her negative assessment by significant measure, Mr. Kousser says, so Whitman’s second task will be to show that she has a positive vision for California.Skip to next paragraph
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“She must show that she can do more than attack Jerry Brown,” Kousser says.
Another key opportunity for both candidates is introducing voters to each’s own personality and style. The question to answer is: "Will voters be comfortable being led by this person?" analysts say. The classic indicator of this liability is the 1960 televised debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had out-parried Kennedy. Those who saw it on TV were struck \by Nixon’s profuse sweating and beady eyes, while Kennedy was confident and smiling. Polls later showed that the debate was definitive for many voters in picking the country’s leader.
"In debates, weak performances can make more difference than strong ones. Will Whitman get wobbly? Will Brown lose his temper and make a damaging gaffe?” asks Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Very few people will watch the debate in the initial broadcast. If the debate makes any difference at all, it will be because of the ‘defining moments' – the brief clips that make YouTube and the evening news.”
Some analysts say Whitman will have to be deft in distancing herself from the Republican Party, which a recent poll finds has alienated California's Latino voters, a key demographic.
“This is where the GOP brand hurts her,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. “She needs to show she is an independent person and not necessarily bound by all aspects of the Republican Party.”
Most agree the debate will be more difficult for Whitman, who must demonstrate that she can answer questions and not hide from the media. She has been criticized for evasive techniques on the campaign trail for the past year, but the format of the debate allows for followup questions by both the panel of journalists and the opposing candidate.
"I suspect we won't find out much we didn't know about either candidate in this debate," says Gary Aminoff, Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. "People will be looking at this debate not to listen to what each candidate says, or their policy positions," he says, but to see "who seems to be more confident that they have a solution to the problems of California." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Aminoff's title.]
The debate, the first of three between the candidates, takes place Tuesday night at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.