Meg Whitman declines Jerry Brown challenge to stop negative ads

At a women's conference, moderator Matt Lauer challenges California's gubernatorial candidates to stop negative ads. Jerry Brown said he would if Meg Whitman did. Whitman skirted the issue.

By , Staff writer

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    California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces gubernatorial candidates Democrat Jerry Brown (r.) and Republican Meg Whitman (l.) during the Women's Conference Tuesday in Long Beach, Calif.
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Slipping in the polls and with one week until Election Day, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman upset a boisterous crowd by ignoring a pledge to stop running negative ads.

Ms. Whitman shared the stage with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and her Democratic challenger, Jerry Brown, at the Women's Conference in Long Beach, Calif., Tuesday. In response to a moderator's challenge to the candidates that they "drop all negative ads up to election day," Mr. Brown responded: "If Meg wants to do that, I'll be glad to do that."

Whitman was booed by the crowd of 14,000 women in attendance when she said, “I will take down any ads that can be construed as a negative attack. But I don’t think we can take down the ads that talk about where Gov. Brown is on the issues.” [Editor's note: The original version misattributed a quote to Meg Whitman.]

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The decision could prove costly, says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

“This was a largely Republican-leaning group and when [Whitman] refused to take the pledge, they got surly,” she says.

But moderator Matt Lauer, a host of NBC's "Today Show," put Whitman in a tough spot – something he acknowledged by saying he would give the candidates 24 hours to make a decision.

First, the forum at the annual conference traditionally is not confrontational or political, but rather focuses on leadership issues. Indeed, for 40 minutes Tuesday, it had dwelt on questions like, “Who’s your greatest influence?” and “Who do you call in a crisis?”

Moreover, media experts say negative ads often do work, and with Whitman trailing in the polls and running short on time, she would be loath to abandon them. The question played right into Brown's hands.

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“Matt Lauer was not giving an inch, Arnold was loving it, and Jerry Brown was keeping quiet,” says Ms. O'Connor.

Yet Whitman created her own problems during the forum, says O'Connor. At an conference that featured inspiring speeches by luminaries as first lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and poet Mary Oliver, Whitman still appeared to be in stump-speech mode.

“The crowd was dumbfounded when [Whitman] gave them the same lines they have heard 500 times before in her ads that ‘Jerry has been in politics 40 years’ and ‘people should know his record,’ ” says O’Connor. "This was not the place or time for campaign messages and Meg did not get it. After hearing all these touching, inspiring messages on how to change the world, by comparison, Meg did not sit well with them at all.”

Other analysts agree that Whitman might be missing a chance for a game-changing decision.

“This is one of the most negative campaigns in American history and California’s is more negative than most,” says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.” “All of America has had it up to here with attack ads and this would be a giant national story how the biggest campaign state in America changed directions.”

Polls suggest that Whitman could benefit from positive press. An Oct. 22 Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll puts Whitman's unfavorability rating at 52 percent, compared with 44 percent for Brown. Asked which candidate was better at telling the truth, 44 percent picked Brown, 24 percent picked Whitman, according to the poll.

“I absolutely think this exchange is going to matter because it is so close to the election,” says Ms. Brown, noting that polls repeatedly show 15 to 20 percent of voters don’t make up their mind until the last 48 hours. Even though Jerry Brown is ahead by 13 points in Times/USC poll, "midterm elections are notoriously hard to predict."

Her advice to Whitman: “Trump him by coming out in writing with a full pledge to go completely positive."

[Editor's note: The dateline in the original version was incorrect.]

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