In making the case why they ought to be California's next governor, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have slashed at the seven-year tenure of the man they hope to replace, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in turn has slapped at each of them as he defends his priorities in office.
The three-way skirmishing will come to a remarkable head Tuesday, when the three are to share a stage at the annual Women's Conference in Long Beach, hosted by Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver.
"You've got the governor, who hasn't endorsed either candidate, and who both candidates are using as a whipping boy," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "They have to watch warily because he's a pretty clever guy who's more entertaining than either of them. Talk about putting yourself in a situation where anything can happen."
Except for occasional jabs at the current candidates, Schwarzenegger has largely stayed out of the race. Neither candidate is probably dismayed over the lack of endorsement, given that Schwarzenegger's approval ratings have fallen as low as those of Gov. Gray Davis, the man he replaced during the 2003 recall election.
Schwarzenegger shares some positions with Brown: The state's current attorney general is a strong supporter of Schwarzenegger's signature environmental accomplishment, the state's landmark climate-change law, which Whitman has called a "job killer" and which she wants to postpone and modify.
She has also criticized both men for declining to go to court to defend Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on gay marriage. But some of Whitman's economic proposals are similar to Schwarzenegger's.
The governor took on a visible role in the contest this week, when Brown released an ad that spliced footage of Schwarzenegger and Whitman making virtually identical campaign pronouncements. Included among them: "I don't owe anyone anything" and "What's the worst that could happen?"
Schwarzenegger's only response to the ad was a joke. "Well, I think that my delivery of the lines was much better in the commercial than hers," he told reporters.
Whitman's and Schwarzenegger's practically indistinguishable rhetoric is not surprising because Whitman is relying on many of the same campaign consultants as the governor, starting at the top: Her chief strategist is Mike Murphy, who was credited as a key player in Schwarzenegger's 2003 victory.
Earlier this year, Murphy said that if Schwarzenegger weighed in on the race, it would probably be in the final days.
"My guess is whatever he does, he'll do it late. He's a genius for drama," Murphy said. But, he added, "with all due love and respect for Arnold, it's not about him anymore. It's about who comes next."
Yet it has been about him in many ways. Brown, who has been in politics since the 1970s, has essentially declared Whitman — a first-time political candidate — to be the second coming of Schwarzenegger, a characterization meant to convey that experience matters.
"I think the inexperience of our current governor led to the debacles that we've seen, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if my opponent wins, you might see a repeat of that," Brown told the Sacramento Bee's editorial board.
On Thursday, however, Brown praised some of Schwarzenegger's accomplishments, such as the global warming bill.
"I sure love AB 32. I sure love high-speed rail. I like stem cells," he said in San Diego. "But I think Meg should use her own script."
Whitman, the former head of EBay, has said there is a "vacuum of leadership" in Sacramento, and she chided Schwarzenegger for heading to China when the state's budget was months overdue.
"I have a lot of respect for Gov. Schwarzenegger. I think he had exactly the right ideas," Whitman said on Thursday in Los Angeles. "But his background and my background are really different. I've been in business for 30 years, I have created jobs, I've run big organizations, I have the managerial skills to get things done. And Gov. Schwarzenegger was an actor and he was a passive investor, so our skill sets are entirely different, and I think he wishes he had been able to get more done than he has."
The big unknown as Tuesday's appearance nears is how the candidates will finesse such charges in a face-to-face discussion with Schwarzenegger in front of 14,000 people.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger is a very intimidating presence. In person, he tends to dominate a stage or a room and he tends to sort of be the center of a conversation. It will be interesting to see how they manage that," said a political analyst who declined to speak by name to preserve relationships with the campaigns.
"I also think both candidates have been offering a variety of quick fix ideas that may not be realistic, and when you have a sitting governor there to call b.s., it will make for an interesting conversation," the analyst said.