Brown-Whitman debate: A fierce confrontation

With the stakes high and the governor’s race tight, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown faced off Tuesday night for their third meeting of the campaign — a 60-minute, acid-dipped confrontation that was as much brawl as debate.

In the end, both candidates stayed on familiar themes, with Whitman railing against unions and big government, and Brown painting the billionaire Whitman as a politically naive tool of the wealthy. Of the two, Whitman hewed closer to her rehearsed campaign script, using most of the questions to repeatedly proffer her views on fixing the sour economy.

But the story of the debate was not policy.

It was the punch and counterpunch between the two, punctuated by repeated applause from the audience. Indeed, during the encounter in San Rafael at the Dominican College of California, interruptions from the audience accounted for perhaps 10 minutes of the debate — time that could have been spent in questions and answers from the canidates.

Whitman clearly was more combative than in the previous two debates. Brown searched for chinks in her armor and found them, as when he pointedly wondered how much she would personally benefit if her plan to cut taxes on capital gains ultimately became law. “How much money will you save?” he asked.

Brown appeared at his weakest when he was forced to apologize — twice — for an aide’s description of Whitman as a “whore” in a September voice mail. She declined to accept it.

But Brown scored, again, on Whitman when he chastised her for the “sorry tale” of employing an undocumented immigrant from 2000 to 2009, and then summarily firing her — an issue that has roiled the campaign for two weeks.

“After nine years, she didn’t even get her a lawyer,” he snapped.

Notwithstanding the stage fireworks, the governor’s race appeared too close to call – despite Whitman’s personal spending record on a governor’s race of $140 million and Brown’s widespread backing of organized labor.

Unlike the two earlier encounters, Tuesday’s debate had a single moderator, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw.

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