Five months ago I began a conversation with a toy designer, a doctor, an engineering company executive and an online soccer reporter who had some things in common:
They had all been turned off by both major political parties, they considered themselves independents, and they hadn't decided whether to vote for Republican Meg Whitman or Democrat Jerry Brown for governor of California.
"I'd just like someone to answer a few questions that don't make my b.s. detector shriek," toy designer Randall Gwin of Newport Beach told me five months ago.
Like the other three voters, Gwin wasn't getting the only thing he really wanted from the candidates: a coherent strategy for rescuing California from endless political dysfunction and fiscal disaster. In August, engineering exec Maureen Hayes registered the same complaint.
"I don't see a candidate that really has a plan for a better future for California at this point," said the Ladera Ranch resident.
By the end of summer, none of the four voters, who also included physician Paul Song of Santa Monica and the reporter, Adam Serrano of Arcadia, had been won over by either candidate. But now, with just over a week to go before election day, they've had to pick their poison.
"It was really one of those lesser of two evils kind of deals," said Serrano, 23, a former UC Berkeley Republican Club member who plans, reluctantly, to vote for Brown. Serrano said he feels "just as disaffected" now as he did when the campaign began.
Yeah, lot of that going around.
Political campaigns are grim, dirty, dishonest affairs across the land, but maybe more so in California, where the state's sprawl makes retail politics and town-hall discussions harder to pull off. Instead, we get assaulted with insultingly simplistic TV ads, one after another, and they're hard to avoid when there are millions of dollars behind them.
Turn on the radio and you get smacked. Switch to the TV and you get walloped.
You don't need to be in the NFL to worry about the long-term effects of too many damaging blows to the head.
"As for the strengths of the campaign, nothing really comes to mind," said Hayes, who saw the candidates as focus group robots. "Apparently no one in the focus groups said they wanted to see a real human being talking about solving real problems with compassion, empathy and common sense — without having to rely on the negative opponent image."
So, how will she vote?
Whitman, based in part on the former EBay executive's business-friendly tax proposals.
"As you know, I work in infrastructure. My involvement is mostly related to getting projects into design and construction," said Hayes. "So I've got to vote for Whitman at this point because I think she does understand how to create jobs. Private sector jobs contribute to the tax base to support the public sector jobs and social services."
Gwin, on the other hand, who calls himself a truly independent Orange County Christian, said he doesn't equate success in business with "the ability to serve." So he's holding his nose and voting for Brown.
"I don't want to live in California LLC," said Gwin, who supports Whitman's calls for pension reform but thinks she has piled too much blame for the state's woes on the backs of public employees. His wife is a faculty member in the Cal State system.
Another Whitman turnoff for Gwin:
"Her voting record, or lack thereof, is impossible to get over. She's 54 years old and now she's interested in politics? As her first foray into public service we're supposed to believe that she'd make a competent governor?"
Song, a former Libertarian who says he voted for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wonders what good Whitman's "self-professed leadership" would be in dealing with a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
And he thinks the business-friendly candidate has got it all wrong on California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which she would hold up for a year because of the possible short-term loss of jobs. That legislation would make California a world leader in green technology, argued Song, and is the state's "best chance to create jobs."
Song called Whitman's $140-million personal investment in her candidacy "obscene," though he had nothing kinder to say about the many millions spent in support of Brown by public employee unions.
Brown, making it 3 to 1 among these four independents. Song thinks Brown's many years of government experience give him a better chance to rescue the state. But, he added:
"I pray I am not wrong."
And so here we are, approaching the end of yet another campaign in which the candidates sullied each other, exaggerated claims, misrepresented the facts, wasted time on nonsense, made voters even more cynical and managed to almost completely avoid the discussion California most needed.
We don't know how either would have closed this year's $20-billion budget deficit, or what they'd do to prevent a similar disaster next year. In the last debate, moderator Tom Brokaw waited literally until the last minute to ask the most important question — how the candidates would address the state's structural dysfunction. Neither Brown nor Whitman answered.
Can such a gloomy campaign season have a silver lining?
Maybe. Rather than give up hope, Adam Serrano sees this tawdry affair as a call to service. The 23-year-old intends to go into politics, because someone has to raise the bar.
Wish him luck.