Meg Whitman vs. Jerry Brown: Can Tom Brokaw steer them toward substance?

Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, candidates for California governor, will debate for the final time Tuesday, with Tom Brokaw moderating. The candidates have spent a lot of time dwelling on scandal recently.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Debate moderator Tom Brokaw talks with a KNBC staffer during a Monday walk-through of Angelico Hall at Dominican University, the site of Tuesday night's debate between

In their third and final debate Tuesday, California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown (D) and Meg Whitman (R) will have their last chance to clear up the haze of scandal that hangs over each of their heads. Ms. Whitman is still being dogged for firing an undocumented maid and Mr. Brown’s campaign is in hot water for a sexist slur.

Just as pressing, though, is the need for both to put the scandals aside and focus on what they will do for the state, some analysts say.

“People have already made up their minds about character and will be looking for answers to ‘What will you do for me?’ ” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “Each needs to spell out what they will do about jobs, economic recovery, education and the other top issues, voters care about.”

What voters want to know is which candidate has the plan that will work to turn California around, says Gary Aminoff, Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. “Those questions [the maid and the slur] are irrelevant,” he says.

Many have hopes that moderator Tom Brokaw, with his decades of experience at NBC, will be able to keep the candidates focused on substance.

“He is a master and a pro’s pro, so if there is any indication that the debate will veer off into titillation, he will steer it back,” says Hal Dash, CEO of Cerrell and Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm.

Mr. Brokaw commands respect among voters, says Ms. O'Connor, and the candidates will forget that at their peril. "He is the closest thing we have to Walter Cronkite,” she says. “He’s so loved by most people watching that Whitman and Brown don’t dare try to crawl over him because the people will resent it,” says O’Connor.

Not everyone is so sure that Brokaw will be able to steer the two toward meaningful discussion. “He will not be able to declare any kind of truce,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Yet if candidates are not specific on their own, the debate’s ultimate value may rest in Brokaw's skill as an interviewer.

“Meg Whitman wants to cut 40,000 jobs. She needs to be asked how that can be done without hurting the state,” says Mr. Kousser. “Jerry Brown says he won’t raise taxes without voter approval. He needs to be asked what he’ll do if voters say no – then what are his plans?”

Whitman probably has the bigger challenge, says Mr. Dash, because Brown has inched ahead in several polls.

“She will have to find a way to be specific about what she will do that is actually achievable and will resonate with those watching,” he says.

Whitman lost ground after debate No. 2 on Oct. 2, in which she chided out Brown for attacking her on the housekeeper scandal. Clips of the exchange were played on local newscasts and went viral on the Internet.

The debate will ask a lot of the candidates, say analysts, and both will have to grapple with how to tell voters what they need to hear without angering them or making their eyes glaze over.

“Expecting politicians to acknowledge harsh reality is like expecting health food at a county fair,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “The state faces a painful dilemma. It needs to reduce the deficit and create jobs. But the steps necessary to reduce the deficit – tax hikes or spending cuts – run counter to job creation.”

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