As an audience of 14,000 women roared their approval, gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown were asked pointedly on Tuesday to take down the negative advertisements that are saturating California's airwaves in the final days before the Nov. 2 election.
Brown agreed to the proposal — made by NBC journalist Matt Lauer, who was moderating the appearance of the two and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the annual Women's Conference in Long Beach — if Whitman would also assent.
Whitman declined, and the audience booed.
The conflict was the most dramatic moment of an event that provided the last planned face-to-face meeting of the two candidates before Tuesday's election. And it instantly shifted the dynamic of the event.
When the candidates were introduced, Whitman, who would be the first woman governor in California history, clearly received louder applause and warmer cheers.
The session had the makings of discomfort from the beginning, because Whitman and Brown were appearing with Schwarzenegger, whom they both have criticized in various ways during the campaign. But it was Lauer who instead put them on the spot.
"It's been a brutal year. I mean this campaign has been a bloodbath," Lauer said. "With one week left, would either of you or both of you be willing to make a pledge that you would end the negativity?"
As the audience applauded raucously, Schwarzenegger smiled broadly and clapped, and the two candidates looked stunned.
"Sometimes negativity is in the eye of the beholder," Brown said, before agreeing to take down his negative ads if Whitman did as well. "If Meg wants to do that, I'll be glad to do that."
Whitman at first tried to draw a line between personal attacks and record attacks, which Lauer dismissed as a "question of semantics" and pressed her again.
"I will take down any ads that could be even remotely be construed as a personal attack, but I don't think we can take down ads that talk about where Gov. Brown stands on the issues," Whitman said, to boos.
Their appearance at the largest women's conference in the nation was a welcome opportunity for both candidates, but especially for Whitman, who is trailing Brown among women voters despite — and analysts believe partly because of — spending $141 million of her own money on the campaign.
Whitman started their half-hour panel discussion by emphasizing lessons she learned from her late mother and from working her way up the corporate ladder before she became chief executive of EBay.
"I started from the beginning saying you've got to stand up to the people who say it can't be done, you've gotta rely on your own expertise, you've gotta deliver the results," she said. "And I think it's interesting that people have said in this campaign, 'You don't have the experience to do that.' Well, I've been bucking that curve since I joined the workforce 30 years ago."
Brown, in contrast, initially rambled, jumping from talking about his grandmother reading him Bible stories to his time as a Jesuit seminarian in a "cocoon of religious fervor," to his mother bringing order to a chaotic household.
"I've always appreciated that relationship between order and chaos," he concluded.
Both candidates carefully avoided attacking each other until Whitman, who appeared flustered by the exchange about ads, launched a critique of Brown's tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983.
"Jerry Brown in many ways left this state in worse shape than when he inherited it," she said, her words becoming inaudible because of boos from the crowd.
The candidates have faced off in three debates.
Schwarzenegger, who has declined to endorse a successor, said voters are sick of politicians bickering.
"People are sick and tired of politicians accusing each other of things and attacking each other and calling each other names. It's a waste," he said. "It's much more attractive if candidates go out and talk about what is the vision of the future of California."
The governor, who came into office in the 2003 recall election, painted a rosy picture of his seven-year tenure. Asked to give himself a letter grade, he replied that he had earned a "straight 10," citing his work on pension and political reform and the state's landmark climate-change law.
He lamented that these accomplishments came late in his term, but said they would lay a foundation for the next administration.
He heaped praise on Whitman and Brown, saying they were the two best candidates in the country.
If Whitman wins, she "will make history as the first woman governor in the state of California, someone who has worked her way up to the top and became a top executive, which was not easy at the time she did it," Schwarzenegger said.
Schwarzenegger called Brown "a great public servant," recalling his family's political legacy and his terms as governor, Oakland mayor and attorney general.