California gubernatorial rivals Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman slugged it out toe to toe Tuesday, a far cry from their previous debate when Brown hammered Whitman mercilessly on her hiring and firing of an undocumented housekeeper.
Whitman was clearly more aggressive during their third and final debate at Dominican University in Marin County, taking advantage of the Brown campaign’s embarrassment about an accidentally recorded phone message in which someone close to Brown, in his presence, called Whitman a “whore” in obtaining a police union endorsement.
Brown apologized again, but then may have stumbled by declaring that calling someone a whore is not as bad as using the N-word to describe a black person, running the risk of alienating women, who are half the state’s voters.
Sensing an opening, Whitman declared that California “deserves better than slurs and personal attacks” and that calling someone a whore is “a deeply offensive term to women.”
It was, in a sense, turnabout for the verbal lashing that Brown laid on Whitman 10 days earlier in Fresno about her housekeeper.
That exchange aside, moderator Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor, pretty much kept the debate on more substantive matters, questioning both about the deficit-ridden state budget, public employee pensions, crime, illegal immigration, and ballot measures dealing with global warming and marijuana.
By and large, both stuck to their standard positions on those issues and at every opportunity returned to their core campaign themes — Brown that Whitman is a tycoon who lacks political experience, Whitman that Brown is a political retread beholden to unions.
However, Whitman presented a more animated and extemporaneous demeanor than she had in past debates, while Brown, one of the glibbest politicians ever to draw a breath, often found himself on the defensive and made a couple of verbal gaffes.
If debating is scored by how one meets, falls below or exceeds expectations, Whitman probably won on points Tuesday night — although whether her jousting with Brown has any lasting effect on their campaigns remains uncertain.
The two had been running dead even before the housekeeper incident interceded, and it appeared to give Brown a boost. But then the “whore” flap emerged, driving the housekeeper situation out of the media and putting Brown on the defensive.
There have been no widely accepted polls since, but it’s reasonable to assume that regardless of who might be a few points ahead or behind, the duel is still close enough to go either way, depending on how 15 or 20 percent of undecided voters break.
And voting, one should remember, is already under way by mail, so last-minute attacks will have a steadily declining effect.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.