Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

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Bobbleheads Photo: John Myers

In a few hours, the political world -- and, if we're lucky, voters statewide -- will be focused on the stage inside the Mondavi Center for the Arts on the campus of UC Davis for the first debate between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman.

And chances are it will be the most important debate, too.

The 6 p.m. debate, carried by a variety of TV and radio stations (including live on KQED Public Radio), comes as two public statewide polls show the race either very close or dead even. And that's why this may be the most important debate, as a large number of undecided and even dispirited voters will get the chance to take the first, true measure of each candidate as they go mano a mano.

Brown and Whitman will debate again on Saturday, but the event's broadcast will be tape delayed; then it's on to a talk radio debate in San Francisco and the final live debate two weeks from today. But all of these may pale in comparison the first big showdown tonight.

There will be an awful lot of instant reporting (from folks like me, too) and post-mortem analyses. But here are a few things to be on the lookout for ahead of time (beyond the drinking game options of counting how many questions Brown turns into Jesuit teaching moments, or how many questions Whitman begins with her everpresent "So...").

Who Connects? This is admittedly an intangible in political debates, but it's still something most folks can spot in a heartbeat. Which candidate feels real and not rehearsed? Which candidate plays the role of governor most convincingly? Which candidate seems more petty or defensive? There's no doubt going to be a strong desire by both candidates tonight to not offer the gaffe that keeps getting played over and over on YouTube -- but playing it too safe, too close to the talking points, could also prove damaging. Those talking points are especially troublesome for Whitman, who rarely seems to deviate from her stump speech these days. For Brown, the challenge is just the opposite -- as he can sometimes unleash an unclear stream-of-consciousness that, this time, could turn off viewers and cause him to seem unfocused.

Race For The Soundbite: Both candidates and their respective campaigns know that the press is going to be waiting to see who gets off the one-liner that plays at the top of evening newscasts and morning papers. But often you see candidates trying too hard to deliver the punch they've been practicing in debate warmups for weeks. No doubt Team Whitman has got some Jerry, You're Such A Career Politician You Wouldn't Even Qualify For A Job At Starbucks quip all lined up... while Team Brown is probably prepping a Californians like to play the Meg-A Millions Lottery Game, But Your Meg-A Millions Are Trying To Buy An Election jab. Or something to that effect. These verbal bombs don't do much when it comes to informing the voters, but they do give us all a chance to see if the person being hit has a glass jaw. Can they take it?

Brown's Evolution: One reasonably fair line of attack for the GOP newcomer will be to demand Jerry Brown explain to the voters a little about how he squares his many evolutions on the issues. The one most in the headlines for the past week has been the Democratic veteran's many comments about the death penalty, which he's personally opposed but supported as attorney general. The issue would have been even more intense had the incumbent governor not delayed the execution of an inmate that was scheduled for just five hours after the debate. But Brown is going to be asked tonight spend a fair amount of time revisiting his past, even as he pushes to make this a debate about the future. In truth, the voters probably need to know a little about both.

Whitman's Climate Change Changes: If there's any subject on which Brown will no doubt want to draw a contrast tonight, it's California's landmark climate change law and the November ballot measure that would indefinitely suspend its implementation. Whitman has had a little trouble navigating between the positions staked out by the conservative wing of her party and the moderate Republican governor who sees the law as his legacy -- who stands with the Democratic candidate, not her, on protecting the law as it stands. Even if some voters agree with her stance, can she articulate it? Or will she struggle not to be seen as an opportunist on this one?

Will Brown Drown In...Arcane Abstractions? This one was referenced earlier, but it bears repeating: Jerry Brown may have to fight all night against his urge to offer historical, philosophical, and theological observations on California's problems and the job of being governor in 2011. His manner of engaging on the issues is at odds with both the format of the modern debate and the attention span of the press and, perhaps, the audience. That's not to say they're not thought-provoking perspectives, but when the red light goes on and you haven't gotten to the point... well, if his advisers haven't worked with him to reign it in, it's going to be a long night for the Democrat. Remember, too, that Brown hasn't been involved in a debate with these kinds of stakes in a long time; Whitman debated her primary opponent twice and seemed to hold her own both times.

Whitman's Wealth: While Jerry Brown may crash and burn if he spends too much time criticizing his billionaire opponent for spending so much of her own money to wage a gubernatorial campaign, there is a larger -- and as of yet, unanswered -- question for Meg Whitman: does she really understand the tough financial times millions of Californians are experiencing? I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that this was the very question I asked Whitman as the moderator of the GOP gubernatorial primary debate in May... a question she seemed to dodge. It's likely that most people don't begrudge her wealth, but they probably do want to know how she can understand unemployment lines, defaulting a mortgage, depending on subsidized child care, and more. To be fair, Brown also doesn't have any bread lines in his past, but the Democrat hasn't promised major spending reductions, like she has, on things like the welfare-to-work program CalWorks. Her 'empathy with average folks' answer on the campaign trail usually focuses on the men and women who made their living selling items on eBay... but one wonders whether she'll need to find some other way -- starting tonight -- to connect with the voters on the tough times out there for many middle class Californians.

The Arnold Shadow: This debate marks the beginning of the end of the Schwarzenegger era in California politics, an era where one man and his vision for the state has seemingly dominated every single policy and political choice faced by voters. So does the Austrian Oak make an appearance tonight (thematically, that is)? For Whitman, there's always been the fact that Schwarzenegger, too, ran as a Republican outsider pledging to clean up Sacramento; will the voters really take a chance that she might, in some ways, be a sequel? And for Brown, who in truth seems much more a soulmate to the iconoclastic incumbent, is there a way to praise parts of the Arnold Era while also not ticking off the 68% of those surveyed in today's Field Poll who disapprove of the Big Guy's performance as governor? Schwarzenegger casts a long shadow, and it will be fascinating to see how these two deal with it... not just tonight, but for the next few weeks.

I hope to have a post-debate entry here on the blog, in addition to the incessant tweets and -- of course -- a full radio report tomorrow morning on The California Report.

And with that, let's get ready to rumble!

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Pat Houck

    Meg Witman came across as being rehearsed, artificial and uncompromising in her right wing stance, as she spoke of letting businesses dodge taxes. She clearly showed that she stood for big money. Her cuts would come at the expense of the poorest in our midst, the unemployed and elderly. Meg’s attitude seems cold toward the working class.
    Jerry Brown, evoked a sincere, enthusiastic manner on the side of the people and with the experience to fight for them. In my opinion, he came out the victor. I think he would know how to deal with the politicians and wouldn’t be afraid to do it. Meg on the other hand, would most likely call special elections like our current governor.