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Jerry was Jerry and Meg was Meg: Jerry takes the debate

Brown showed a sense of humor and energy Tuesday night, while Whitman had a grasp of the facts but seemed robotic in her responses.

September 30, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — It was good to see Jerry Brown again — the spontaneous guy with some humor and wit.

He reminded many who were around back in the 1970s of who he is and showed others who never knew him why people have always found him so interesting.

Until Tuesday night's debate at UC Davis with Republican Meg Whitman, the former Democratic governor had been mostly out of sight or seen as an angry old man.

An angry young man, as Brown was 35 years ago, can be engaging. An angry old geezer at 72 can be boring.

Brown really does need to smile more.

"I've been telling him that since 1970," Tom Quinn, Brown's longtime friend and former political strategist, told me just before the debate.

But in olden times, Brown always did manage to at least grin and entertain.

And that quality resurfaced in the first debate of the fall gubernatorial campaign.

The large live audience got a good laugh when Brown was asked what assurances Californians would have that, if elected governor again, he would not immediately begin running for president as he did back in 1976. And again in 1980 after he was reelected.

Holding up a finger for emphasis and grinning slightly, Brown replied: "Age." But he conceded: "Hell, if I was younger, you know I'd be running again."

He added: "One more thing. I now have a wife. And I come home at night. I don't try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to when I was governor.... So I'm going to spend more time in Sacramento."

And rubbing the top of his bald head, Brown said: "Don't worry about that. I'm in for the duration here."

Another laugh erupted when, during a discussion about escalating state pension costs, the current attorney general poked fun at his age and long political career, observing: "Let's get something real clear. If everybody in state service worked as long as I have, the pension system would be overfunded....

"By the way, if you elect me governor, I won't collect until 76.... If I get a second term, it will be 80. So I'm the best pension buy California has ever seen, OK?"

It was Jerry being Jerry and human.

"Clearly, he cannot be scripted," says Darry Sragow, a former Democratic political consultant and current interim director of the Los Angeles Times/USC poll. "He clearly thinks on his feet. He's clearly authentic and genuine.

"I happen to believe that is good. I think the voters like that. But I could be wrong. That's the question that is going to determine the outcome of the race."

As for Whitman, Sragow says, "She is a media trainer's dream because she is absolutely faithful to the [prepared] message and knows not to stray from what she has to say."

And she didn't make any mistakes.

But while Brown was revealing his human side, Whitman still seemed like a stranger after the debate — or, more apt, a robotic TV creation. She sounded like her ad scripts.

Unlike Brown, Whitman had no trouble smiling, although it often seemed forced.

But with her strong voice, poise, discipline and adequate conversance with the issues, the former EBay chief appeared to be someone who could be governor — even if she did rarely vote before deciding to run for the office.

Asked about her dismal voting record, Whitman very briefly said she was "embarrassed" about it and apologized. Then, practically in the same sentence, she returned to the message that she'd be a governor beholden to no one, compared with Brown, who'd be the puppet of unions.

"The next governor will need a spine of steel," she asserted.

Brown pointed out that as governor, he had twice vetoed pay raises for state employees.

Whitman's main message was that, as a former CEO, she knew how to create private-sector jobs — and that's what California needs to turn around its economy. She must have said "jobs" 100 times.

Brown, in a reference to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, responded: "We tried this business of the inexperienced private-sector person coming in with the spine of steel. And they get flummoxed by the shark-infested waters in Sacramento. I won't."

Brown was animated and energetic — perhaps too much. At times he seemed over-caffeinated, almost hyperventilating. But that's Jerry.

Whitman seemed more like a CEO calmly selling her board on a merger that would prosper from the elimination of 40,000 jobs.

She wants to eliminate 40,000 state jobs, but that didn't come up.

Substance? Not a lot. Specifics? Very few.

"Jerry Brown sounded like a Democrat, and Meg Whitman sounded like a Republican," notes Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster. "In California, that's good for Jerry."

Usually. But it's a Republican year. And this race is very tight.

The debate probably didn't change many opinions, if any. I'd guess that 90% of the people who watched it on TV already had decided whom to vote for. Their views probably were reaffirmed.

It's normal to call such a contest a draw. That's a cop-out. Somebody must have won.

I give a slight edge to Brown. Viewers learned something about him, mainly that he's human after all and knows the government gig. They learned nothing about Whitman they already hadn't gleaned from her never-ending TV ads.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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