The issue of the death penalty, a rare point of contention in recent years because of the pro-capital punishment unanimity among politicians of both major parties, also arose in part due to court actions this week involving the potential execution of a California inmate. Whitman used it to jab Brown for his stance on the death penalty and appointing anti-capital punishment Justice Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court decades ago.
Brown, who personally opposes capital punishment, said he had defended as attorney general "hundreds and hundreds of death penalty cases."
"I pledge to the people of this state I will faithfully carry out our law on executions and I'll do it with compassion and I'll do it with great fidelity to the rule of law," he said.
"Jerry Brown has a long, 40-year record of being quite liberal on crime," Whitman replied, vowing to hasten capital trials.
But more than just the issues, the debate centered on the main question before voters on Nov. 2: whether the key to success for California rests on new blood or experience.
Whitman repeated Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," implying that a California in the hands of a politician was doomed to more dysfunction. She brushed aside criticism of her campaign ads, which have stretched the truth at times.
"We are going to upend the status quo," she said. "We cannot continue to do things the way we historically have done things."
But Brown sought to use against her the state's current governor — like Whitman, a political outsider who promised to end business-as-usual, and now has rock-bottom approval ratings.
"By the way, this business about insanity [being] repeating what we have, we have a man who I very much like, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he was for the private sector, he said he was beholden to no one, he was putting his own money into the campaign, and he was a guy who would run the state like a business," Brown said. "Well, it didn't work out that way. It does take know-how."
Times staff writers Decker and Maeve Reston reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Michael J. Mishak reported from Davis.