Jerry Pledges, Meg Explains, Arnold Loves It

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AP/Matt Sayles

She had them, she lost them. He answered a big question weakly, but quickly jumped on the bandwagon of positivity. And the guy who seemed to be loving every minute of it: the departing incumbent.

Consider that to be the bottom line of today's unusual event in Long beach, which featured both major candidates for governor and the man whose job they have one more week for which to fight.

The event ended with a simplistic but compelling moment: will each candidate stop running negative TV ads?

Soon after Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman walked out onto the stage to join Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and moderator Matt Lauer, it seemed as though the setting -- the 2010 Women's Conference -- and the overall mood of the event -- life empowering and emotional -- were going to force the candidates to spend the entire time praising their families and friends.

"I am my mother's daughter," said Whitman in answering a question about her biggest life influences. To which Brown invoked both his late mother and his wife when it was his turn.

But Lauer had a zinger of a question waiting for the two at the end, calling the campaign between the two candidates "a bloodbath" for its bitter accusations and sharp attacks.

"In one week left," said Lauer, "would either of you, or both of you, make a pledge that you'd be willing to end the negativity?"

The crowd roared. Again, keep in mind this was a day full of inspirational speeches that played well with the call for a more civil tone in this final week of the race.

Brown went first, and instantly seemed to channel his parsed answer in the October 12 debate about the now infamous audiotape of his campaign team. "Sometimes negativity is in the eye of the beholder," said Brown.

The crowd booed. He seemed to then sense the need to bail on the nuance, and switched to simply saying yes. The it was Whitman's turn at the nuance.

She attempted to draw a distinction between character attacks (a no-no) and issue critiques (a-ok). That worked... at first. But the longer the discussion went, the more the pressure seemed to mount on Whitman.

"I don't want [the topic] to end with it being a question of semantics," countered Lauer.

At that point, you could almost see the wheels working in Brown's mind (Wait a minute! I'm ahead! I'm going to look like the good guy here!). "I pledge that right now!" said Brown. The crowd cheered.

Ms. Whitman?

"I will take down any ads that could even remotely be construed as a personal attack," said Whitman. "But I don't think we can take down the ads that talk about where Governor Brown stands on the issues. I just think it's not the right thing to do."

The crowd booed. A lot.

Schwarzenegger now seemed to be having a ball, leaning over to Whitman and saying: "Mike Murphy is in the back. He's shvitzing!" (Murphy, a top aide to Whitman, served in the same capacity for Schwarzenegger in 2003 and 2005.)

Whitman's campaign has just launched two new TV ads criticizing Brown. While the GOP nominee also has a 60 second positive ad on the air, the anti-Brown ads seem to be one last attempt to smack down the Democrat before next Tuesday.

Brown then accepted the challenge a second time, milking the applause of the mostly female audience for all it was worth. Whitman again tried to unstick herself from the political flypaper Lauer had laid down on the stage, but she was stuck.

"I'm not doing it in a mean-spirited way," she said. "I just think it's important for people to really understand what the track was [of Brown] in Oakland, what the track record was as governor."

More boos. Which then gave Brown a chance to sell his latest ad as, in his words, "positive."

Whitman tried to respond, but the reality is that the die was cast at that point. The Republican wasn't going to get the crowd back on her side, no matter what she said.

KQED/John Myers

And if Whitman's afternoon hadn't turned sour enough, it was Schwarzenegger's turn to take a little jab.

"I happen to disagree with Meg a little bit," said Schwarzenegger. "California is going to be a golden state once again? California is a golden state!"

The crowd loved it. After all, as the Guv said towards the end, "It's Maria and my conference."

The governor, who made it clear he would not endorse before next Tuesday, praised both candidates in closing remarks... but also seemed to lay it on especially thick for Brown ("He's a great public servant").

Did we learn anything substantively new about Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown in this event? No. But in a week where every step is going to be watch... scrutinized... and analyzed, Whitman's 'yes-but-no' answer (to what was admittedly an impossible thing to agree to) is going to get a lot of play.

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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.
  • Montana

    What is the deal with the women GOP governor candidates and their crime propensity sons. Arizona’s Jan Brewer AKA Punky Brewster son (Ronald Brewer) is in jail for kidnapping and sexual assault and California’s Meg Whitman, AKA NutMeg son (Griffith Rutherford Harsh V) was accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate at Princeton University and arrested for breaking a woman’s ankle in California during a bar brawl, no jail time, sweet. I guess these two have Mommy issues.

    Nutmeg will lose as will Carly the tremendous failure of HP, don’t come crying to me if the GOP, keeps finding weak candidates, its like Mccain with the half-term Governor Palin all over again, what a joke that was, I mean comedian, talk show guest, commentator, now her new BS on the (of all places) The learning Channel, jack of all trades, master of none.

    June 14, 2010, The New York Times, Ebay paid out $200,000 because Nutmeg assaulted an employee, so it’s not the first time she has mistreated an employee.

    “The Whitman campaign issued a statement signed by Ms. Whitman that described Ms. Young Mi Kim as a “respected colleague and valuable asset to the company. In any high-pressure working environment, tensions can surface,” the statement said. ” Not quite a denial, what a fool she is.

    I must say one thing about Nutmeg is that she is a good parrot and the cracker she wants is CA:

  • Dar

    Who does Matt Lauer think he is. All of these people are so full of themselves, he is just a commentator not anything more or less. The guy is arrogant and ignorant, enough said.

  • Mike Russell

    LOL – if the question about negative ads has you flummoxed, then attack the personality of the person asking the question? Do you see the irony?

    Meg gave a bad answer. It showed how little she has in the way of politcal instincts, and how much she has invested in negative ads.

    Matt Lauer’s question was non-partisan and gave both candidates an equal chance to answer positively. It also cut to the chase of what is wrong with American politics today: too much money being spent bashing the other guy.