Final California Gov. debate tonight: Substance or more mudslinging? |

Final California Gov. debate tonight: Substance or more mudslinging?

SACRAMENTO — With just three weeks before Election Day, the two candidates hoping to become California’s next governor will meet in their third and final debate Tuesday, hoping to win over uncommitted voters who might just now be tuning in to the race.

Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman will try to put a series of controversies behind them and move on to more substantive issues facing a state that has been ravaged by the recession. Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw will moderate the evening debate at Dominican University in San Rafael.

The most recent public opinion polls have shown the race in a virtual tie. Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay, has spent $140 million introducing herself to voters and attacking Brown, who has campaigned on his experience and received considerable help from public employee unions.

The polls were taken before two embarrassing revelations that could leave voters with questions about the candidates’ character.

The second debate last month in Fresno, which was aimed at Latino voters, was marked by nastiness over Whitman’s acknowledgment just days earlier that her housekeeper of nine years was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Whitman claimed she did not know the worker was illegally in the country before she fired her in June 2009 and then turned the woman down when she requested help with a case for potential legal status.

The incident was problematic for Whitman politically because she consistently has said that employers who hire illegal immigrants should be fined, but she did not turn the woman over to authorities when she learned of her status.

Whitman accused Brown and his Democratic allies of pushing the story and manipulating the housekeeper, while Brown accused Whitman of not living up to her corporate rhetoric of holding employers accountable for mistakes.

After days of unflattering stories about Whitman’s association with the maid, the mudslinging came Brown’s way.

A Los Angeles police union leaked an audio tape in which a Brown campaign aide – apparently a woman – can be heard calling Whitman a “whore” as campaign staffers discussed her proposal to exempt some public safety unions from her plans to cut pension benefits for public employees.

Whitman on Sunday asked reporters to move on to more pressing issues facing the state, even as her campaign operatives continued to push behind the scenes for greater coverage of the story.

“I think the media needs to turn the attention back to the issues that are in front of every Californian between now and Nov. 2,” she said.

A public that has been battered by the steepest economic decline since the Great Depression is likely to welcome such a change in tone.

Polls show creating jobs and turning around the economy top California voters’ list of concerns. Official unemployment has been stuck above 12 percent for more than a year, but the unofficial rate is much higher because many Californians have simply given up looking for work. At the same time, millions are underemployed in part-time or temporary jobs.

The state also has been hard-hit by home foreclosures, much of its K-12 education system is struggling and the state government has faced years of multibillion dollar budget deficits, leading to across-the-board cuts to core services and skyrocketing college and university fees.

All three debates between Brown and Whitman will have been at universities. The previous forums were at the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Fresno.

Tuesday’s will be at a 2,000-student private university that was founded by Dominican nuns but is now independent. Many of Dominican University’s programs focus on the humanities.

The earlier debates provided voters with a sharp contrast in tone and style: Whitman hued closely to her campaign talking points about job creation, cutting government spending and fixing schools, while Brown demonstrated his understanding of government.

He also has made self-deprecating remarks about his age and experience, allowing voters to see a personal side that has so far been missing from Whitman’s responses.

Brown has had few campaign appearances in recent weeks while Whitman has hosted a series of prominent Republican surrogates at campaign events, most recently former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Brown will appear with former President Bill Clinton this weekend.

Whitman’s events also come with a much higher price tag. She has given her campaign more than $122 million from her personal fortune, while Brown has spent more cautiously, although the unions that support him have spent $19 million on his behalf during the general election.

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