Did final Meg Whitman-Jerry Brown debate change anything?

Tuesday's California gubernatorial debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown was the last before the election, making it crucial for both candidates.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California gubernatorial candidates Democrat Jerry Brown (r.) and Republican Meg Whitman debate Tuesday in their third and final debate.

The liveliest of three debates, yet still light on economic specifics. Meg Whitman still relies on script and is not concrete enough. Jerry Brown ahead on facts and particulars.

Those are a few of the assessments by political analysts after the final debate between California gubernatorial candidates Mr. Brown (D) and Ms. Whitman (R). With three weeks until election day and Californians casting mail ballots now, this last matchup was seen as crucial to Whitman forging a comeback or to Brown cementing his fresh lead in polls.

“Voters have a clear choice, but does Whitman come off as another Arnold [Schwarzenegger] who tried but ultimately fell short? And do voters see Brown a career pol who has done the job but is he 'old news and ancient history?' ”says Hal Dash of Cerrell & Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm. “Overall, Whitman and Brown had passion, a decent amount of specifics, but clearly both are struggling with a real economic recovery plan for California.”

Brokaw hits scandals head-on

Veteran moderator Tom Brokaw confronted the scandals hanging over each candidate’s head directly.

Brown apologized directly to Whitman and called a remark by a campaign aide caught on voice mail calling Whitman a “whore” "unfortunate." But he also bristled at Mr. Brokaw's suggestion that to women the word is as offensive as the "n-word" is to African Americans.

Whitman pounced, shaking her head and saying, "Women know exactly what's going on here," and called the word a "slur."

But Brokaw also put Whitman on the hot seat when he asked about her employing an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years. Brokaw asked Whitman how she intended to make good on her promise to hold businesses accountable for hiring undocumented workers when she couldn't do so herself.

She defended the hiring, saying it was through an employment agency and added that "this is one reason why we need a very good e-verify system" that will hold employers accountable.

A 'fresh approach' vs. a pragmatic veteran

Throughout the one-hour debate, Whitman tried to portray herself as the political outsider that would bring “a fresh approach, a different approach” to California’s entrenched problems and insisted Brown was a failed, lifelong politician. Brown kept touting himself as the pragmatic veteran with the experience to navigate the state’s intransigent budget process.

“I did eight budgets, I know how this is done,” said Brown.

When the debate turned to cutting state taxes, Brown turned to Whitman and asked: "Ms. Whitman, I'd like to ask you, how much money would you save" if investment and business startup taxes were cut, as she has proposed.

Whitman said: "I'm an investor, and investors will benefit from this, but so will job creators.

"My business is creating jobs, and yours is politics. You've been doing this for 40 years ... and you've been part of a war on jobs for 40 years," she said.

"If he goes to Sacramento, it will be the same old, same old," Whitman said at another point. "I've got a very detailed plan, and I think that's part of leadership."

Brown's comeback: "She doesn't have a plan. She said $14 billion in cuts, she doesn't say where; she says 40,000 layoffs, she doesn't say (where) ... and by the way, you've got to get the Legislature on board" or none of it will happen, he said.

Can Whitman close the gap?

On the factual level, “Brown won,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. She says Whitman petered out at the end and was “engaged but often not directly responsive to Brokaw’s questions … Brokaw fact-checked her twice.”

How will the debate effect Whitman's chances? “Depends how closely people were listening and how much they know,” says Ms. O’Connor.

After the first debate, several commentators noted that Whitman passed up the opportunity to go after Brown for judicial appointments. “This time, she hit the issue more than once,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

However, he felt the studio audience was intrusive.

“The cheers and groans were an unnecessary theatrical touch and detracted from the substance of the debate," he says. "Fifty years ago, Nixon and Kennedy engaged in debates without any studio audience – a format better suited to a real exchange on the merits of policy.”

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