SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Coming into their final debate of the California governor's race, Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman had a chance to persuade a statewide audience they could turn around the economically troubled state.
Instead, their third face-to-face exchange resorted to many of the personal attacks that have dominated the last few weeks of the campaign.
Neither candidate presented any new ideas in a contest that is virtually tied just three weeks before Election Day and in which a fifth of voters remain undecided. A poll released two weeks ago found about half the respondents were dissatisfied with both candidates.
Before Brown and Whitman walked on stage, moderator and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told the audience at Dominican University that he planned to address not just the critical economic woes facing the nation's most populous state but the tone of the campaign.
The debate followed several weeks of personal attacks that had both candidates on the defensive — Whitman over revelations that her housekeeper was an illegal immigrant and Brown over an audio tape in which a female campaign aide called Whitman a "whore" for pandering to a Los Angeles police union.
While the first few minutes of the debate were civil, with Brown and Whitman touting California's potential and the tough decisions ahead, much of the hour-long face-off was dominated with rehashed verbal jousting on nearly every issue.
It left 66-year-old independent voter Tom Callinam of Mill Valley with little insight into the candidates' plans if elected governor.
"I have a hard choice. I haven't decided yet. I don't think that debate helped because of all the canned answers," said Callinam, who attended the debate. "I would have liked them to answer the questions."
Brown, 72, sought to describe Whitman as a billionaire corporate executive who wants to buy herself the state's top job to benefit herself and wealthy friends. Whitman, 54, repeatedly called her rival a career politician beholden to public employee unions who would continue the "same old, same old" failed policies in Sacramento.
Brown launched the first attack of the debate, criticizing Whitman's plan to eliminate capital gains taxes, a tax he said would benefit her and her wealthy friends.
"Ms. Whitman, I'd like to ask you how much money would you save if these tax breaks were in effect this year or last year?" he said.
Whitman, who smiled and laughed at the question, shot back, saying "Jerry Brown's just wrong about this." She went on to explain how such a cut would encourage job creation and bring more revenue into the state. She did not say how much she pays in capital gains taxes, although she acknowledged she was an investor who would benefit.
"You know what? I'm an investor, and investors will benefit from this but so will job creators, and I was a job creator," Whitman said.
She also accused Brown of leaving the state in worse shape than when he began as governor during his tenure from 1975 to 1983. She repeated criticisms, which have been shown to be unfounded by The Associated Press and other news organizations, that unemployment nearly doubled and state spending increased by 120 percent under his watch.
Asked about California's spiraling pension costs, Brown said Whitman was the only candidate who has sought to curry favor with unions. He cited her proposal to exempt fire and police from her plans to reform pensions in an attempt to win an endorsement from a Los Angeles police union.
That opened the door for Brokaw to ask Brown about an audiotape released last week in which a female aide used the word "whore" in describing Whitman's attempt to win the union's endorsement. Brokaw characterized the comment as offensive to women as a certain slur is for blacks.
Brown, who has a reputation for being defensive when under scrutiny, said he disagreed with Brokaw's description and sought to downplay the recording as an old, private conservation picked up on a cell phone. He said his campaign had already apologized.
"I don't want to get into the term and how it's used, but I would say that the campaign apologized promptly and I affirm that apology," Brown said. "It's unfortunate. I'm sorry it happened, and I apologize."
Whitman, whose campaign has fueled the controversy over the last week, sought to push the issue further.
"So Jerry, it's not just me. It's the people of California who deserve better than slurs and personal attacks," said Whitman, who just a few days earlier said she wanted to move onto more critical issues in the campaign. "That is not what California is about. It is not our better selves, and I think every Californian and especially women know exactly what's going on here and that is a deeply offensive term to women."
She and Brown then argued over whether Whitman should demand an apology from her campaign manager, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who used the term in 1995 in reference to what he felt was Congress' role in helping public employee unions.
Wading into another controversy that dominated the previous debate, Brokaw asked Whitman how she could advocate for greater employer accountability in the hiring of illegal immigrants when she had hired an illegal immigrant as a maid for nine years.
The subject is an uncomfortable one for Whitman, who has sought to woo Latino voters with targeted Spanish campaign ads in an effort to erode Brown's support among the traditionally Democratic voter bloc. She responded by calling for an improved federal system that allows employers to more accurately check worker documents, greater boarder security and a guest-worker program.
Brown pounced on Whitman's refusal to help her former maid with her immigrant status after she fired her.
"After working for nine years, she didn't even get her a lawyer. At least, I could tell you that could be done," Brown said.
Whitman repeatedly accused Brown of being beholden to public employee unions, which have spent nearly $20 million boosting his candidacy.
Brown said Whitman has accepted about $30 million from outside interests, mostly from corporations and wealthy individuals.
Associated Press Writers Juliet Williams and Robin Hindery contributed to this report.
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