That's not to say Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown weren't making any important points in this matchup, rather that the first debate seemed to reinforce the narrative that's developed in this race so far: Whitman as a careful, messaged candidate expressing disdain for politicians... Brown as a frenetic, shoot from the hip public persona who constantly must defend his long history in elected office.
Good luck figuring out who won.
The hourlong discussion of everything from the state budget to water policy attracted a large crowd of reporters here at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and a raucous crowd of campaign loyalists. But it never seemed to force either of the candidates out of their comfort zones.
First, Brown. For all of his quips -- and there were a lot -- about life as a septuagenarian, the value he's giving taxpayers when it comes to a pension for his long service, and more, the Democratic nominee didn't seem to land a lot of punches on his opponent. Perhaps his best moment came when he criticized Whitman's call for an elimination of the state's capital gains tax.
Saying that Whitman's donors are largely wealthy, Brown said, "I would bet you the majority will get an immediate tax break from her key economic plan." His criticism came just moments after he was left to defend his donations from public employee unions.
What it seemed the veteran public official failed to do, though, was to throw Whitman off of any of her talking points. And at the end, he desperately tried to get in the issue of climate change and Whitman's nuanced position on both the state's 2006 landmark law and November's Proposition 23.
Turning to Whitman, the early part of the debate did not seem to be her strong suit. In fact, perhaps the greatest missed opportunity was on the subject of the death penalty. Brown plowed headfirst (even when asked a slightly different question) into explaining how he has personal misgivings about capital punishment, but none as a public servant. When the rebuttal came to Whitman, she chose not to immediately point out Brown's possible contradictions... instead stating her own position and then turning it into a critique of Brown's record on crime in general, and not the death penalty in particular. In fact, her answer ended with a discussion about building a new Death Row... not about Brown's record. In fact, it took almost three minutes before she actually said what her campaign's been saying for a week.
The Republican newcomer's best line may have come a ways into tonight's matchup: "You know what drives me crazy about career politicians?," she said. "They refuse to accept accountability." That would have come in handy at several other parts of the debate, not just when needling Brown about his record on education while mayor of Oakland
Her other solid line, very late in the debate, was made on the issue of the $11 billion water bond that's been pushed to the 2012 ballot: "It was not perfect by any means," she said, "but I come from the real world, where you actually have to get things done."
That's a great summation of the entire reason for her campaign, and it seemed much more natural than some of the other comments she made tonight.
In this morning's blogging, I mentioned that we'd all be watching for those quips that would make the perfect soundbite -- regardless of whether they actually were substantive. Whitman's was telegraphed from a mile away, as she launched into a criticism of Brown's association with public employee unions -- saying that him as governor negotiating with them would be "like Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank."
Brown's was less scripted, but also hard to ignore -- and it was also an example of how close he seemed to come to saying things that would get him in deeper water, not paddle him to shore.
It was a question about his commitment to the job, given his past flirtations with the presidency. "Hell, if I was younger, you know I'd be running again," said Brown. And then he launched into reminiscing about his bachelor days as governor in the 1970s. "I now have a wife and I come home at night. I don't try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to when I was governor." Funny? Yes. Too much vintage Brown stream of consciousness? Almost.
There will be much more parsing over the next few days, including some assertions both candidates made that need to be fully checked out. But this was a debate that made clear how different Jerry and Meg are from each other... and the complicated choice voters must make in just a few weeks.
More on radio tomorrow on The California Report.
Update Wednesday 9:32 a.m. An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Whitman had made the comment about career politicians in regards to Brown's record before passage of Proposition 13 in 1978; the sentence has been modified above to make clear it came during a discussion of Oakland schools.
Also, audio from this morning's radio story is below.