Calif. Gubernatorial Candidates Face Off In Debate

In the California governor's race, Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown debate for the first time Tuesday night.

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California has huge debts, struggling schools, high unemployment, and the budget that should have been in place three months ago still hasnt been passed. And now, the two people vying to take on those problems as the state's next governor are about to have their first face-to-face confrontation.

The Republican is Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay. The Democrat is Jerry Brown. He's the state attorney general and he also served as governor three decades ago. This evening, they have their first debate.

And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, both have a lot riding on the outcome.

INA JAFFE: In the face of all of California's bad news, Meg Whitman is relentlessly upbeat when she goes out on the campaign trail.

Ms. MEG WHITMAN (R-CA, Gubernatorial Candidate): You know, Im accused often of my opponent of wanting to be the CEO of this state. It's actually not true. I want to be the comeback coach of California.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Whitman beams at the applause. As with most of her events, this gathering at a small business in Southern California has an invited audience of people inclined to support her or already gung-ho, like attorney Laura Dorie.

Ms. LAURA DORIE (Attorney): Oh, I love her. I think shes the solution for California.

JAFFE: What do you love about her?

Ms. DORRY: She was a businesswoman, a CEO. She knows how things run.

JAFFE: Brown's event couldnt be more different. There is usually no audience, just reporters summoned to a symbolically relevant location. On this morning in Los Angeles, it's the loading dock of a company that makes solar panels.

Mr. JERRY BROWN (D-CA, Attorney General, Gubernatorial Candidate): This is the heart and soul of job creation and is also the solution to our energy problems.

JAFFE: With the fire of an Old Testament prophet, Brown goes on to condemn Proposition 23, a measure on the November ballot that would suspend California's landmark climate change law. Oil companies are funding the initiative.

Mr. BROWN: They dont give a damn about California. They care about their profit. And Meg Whitman seems to be going along with that.

JAFFE: Because, she says, as governor she'd delay implementing the climate change law, even though she'll vote against Prop. 23.

Back when Jerry Brown was governor, his support for things like alternative energy got him the nickname Governor Moonbeam. But no one in California has a political pedigree that can match his. Son of a former governor, a two-term governor himself in the 1970s and '80s, a former mayor of Oakland and the current state attorney general.

But many voters dont remember all that and Brown's had to run ads reminding voters of his accomplishments, in what sounds here like the good old days.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: As governor, he cut waste, got rid of the mansion and the limo, budgets were balanced, four billion in tax cuts, world-class schools and universities, clean energy promoted, 1.9 million new jobs created. California was working.

JAFFE: But it's not Jerry Brown's resume that Californians are talking about. It's Meg Whitman's fortune. The former eBay chief is worth more than a billion dollars and has poured a record-breaking 119 million of them into her campaign. That allowed her to hammer Brown relentlessly for months before he could afford to strike back, and to promote her own message in virtually every form of media known to humankind.

Mr. MARK DICAMILLO (Director, Field Poll): So you might say, my God, what is she getting for her money?

JAFFE: Mark Dicamillo is the director of the Field Poll. And he says the answer to that question is: Not much.

Mr. DICAMILLO: The proportion of likely voters who say they have a favorable impression of Meg Whitman has not changed one bit. It's stuck at 40 percent.

JAFFE: Democrats have a big registration advantage over Republicans, but the recent L.A. Times/USC poll finds just a five-point advantage for Brown among likely voters.

Dicamillo's Field Poll shows the race as dead-even. The main thing he sees increasing is the number of voters who are undecided.

Mr. DICAMILLO: Well, what it essentially means is that voters here are having a hard time; that, you know, they're not really warming up to either side. Now, for the first time, a majority or at least pluralities of voters have more negative views than positive views about both candidates.

JAFFE: And at tonight's debate, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown will have one hour to try to change voters' minds.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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