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.

Justin Kase Conder/AP, Paul Sakuma/AP
Meg Whitman (r.) and Jerry Brown face off Tuesday night in the first of three California gubernatorial debates.

The seasoned veteran versus. the political novice. Hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of millions. Man versus woman.

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.

“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.

“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.

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