Debate: Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman show style, but light on solutions

California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown (D) and Meg Whitman (R) both claimed victory after Tuesday night's debate.

Hector Amezcua/Reuters
Democratic candidate Jerry Brown speaks at the first of three debates in the California governors race at the University of California, Davis, on Sept. 28.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for Governor smiles as she takes a reporters question after her debate with Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown at the University of California, Davis, in Davis, Calif., Sept. 28.

No big mistakes. Competent performances, with flashes of humor by one and a demonstrated mastery of issues by the other. Slight on substantive solutions.

Those are some of the early assessments of the first televised debate Tuesday night between California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown (D) and Meg Whitman (R).

“Both sides should be very pleased with the debate,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “The public should be pleased that there are two capable, smart, articulate candidates running for a thankless job.”

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Both sides claimed victory after the one-hour debate.

Topics ran the gamut from California’s massive budget deficit to the death penalty to immigration, education, pensions, and infrastructure. Ms. Whitman, former CEO of eBay waging her first political campaign, showed depth of detail on policy issues and government know-how, while Mr. Brown, who served as governor once already and is now the state attorney general, overcame his penchant to appear arrogant and to wander, several political analysts said. Who won the debate depends on which voters watched, they add.

“Each candidate came away with potential assets and liabilities,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Jerry Brown showed that he could be spontaneous and funny. But he kept reminding people of his age and long years in office, which could be a problem in a year when people are looking for something new. Viewers may have thought, ‘Wow, he's got a good sense of humor.’ They could also have thought, ‘Wow, he's that old?’ ” (Brown is 72.)

Pitney says Whitman showed that she knows the issues and can stay on message. She also put Brown on the defensive at certain points.

“The flip side is that she sounded scripted," says Mr. Pitney. "Viewers could not have come away with a sense of her heart and soul.”

The other overarching comment is that the two were able to distinguish, for the first time in the public eye, how they differ in both style and substance from the other.

“Both were trying to use the same facts to their own advantage and their opponent’s disadvantage,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director at CGS. “Jerry Brown painted himself as the experienced one, with knowledge of how to run things from the inside. Meg showed herself well to be the outsider who is going to come in and change the way the state is run.”

Each accused the other of being beholden to others – Brown to unions and Whitman to millionaires and billionaires.

Whitman said she has a plan to create 2 million private-sector jobs by 2015: by promoting targeted tax cuts for business start-ups and manufacturing, streamlining regulations, and creating an economic-development team that would bring jobs to the state.

"We've got to examine every tax, every regulation, and say, are we competitive to neighboring states?” she said. “Because without jobs, there is no way out of this. And we have to do a better job of keeping companies in California and making sure that we get the expansion opportunities, as well. No company should put a call center in Phoenix, Ariz. They should put it in Fresno or Stockton."

Brown said he would invest in the clean-energy industry and build new transmission lines for renewable power so California could become the leader in wind, solar, and geothermal energy. He, too, said he would cut red tape to encourage new businesses.

"She has the values that if you just give it to Wall Street and business and follow the George Bush playbook, things will be well. But we've seen the results of that, and they're not very pretty,” Brown said on rebuttal. “You can put people to work by retrofitting inefficient buildings of California by the hundreds of thousands."

The debate was held Tuesday night at the University of California, Davis, and was televised on only a limited number of stations statewide. In the event, the duo answered questions and follow-ups from three journalists.

The fact that Whitman held her own with Brown, who is seasoned as both a politician and a debater, works in her favor, says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

“Anytime a novice challenger does this well against a veteran like this, it’s a point for the challenger,” she says.

Brown may have crossed a danger line when he mentioned staying out late at bars while being governor from 1975 to 1983.

“Some viewers may take Jerry Brown’s more colloquial style as being more ‘real,’ but I think Meg Whitman presented herself more smoothly,” says Ms. Levinson of CGS. “She presented herself well, and now it’s just a matter of whether or not people like her policies or not.”

However, hopes that the debate would provide real substance were dashed.

"This was more a personality debate than a real issue debate,” says Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm. “I don’t think voters heard what they wanted, which was very specific ideas on what the candidates were going to do for them.”

The California electorate is both angry and deenergized, note Mr. Dash and other analysts. A Field poll this week showed public approval of the Legislature at the lowest in the history of the poll. Both sides say they will sink considerable funds into get-out-the-vote campaigns.

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