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Meg Whitman faces Meg Whitman tonight, as well as Jerry Brown

October 12, 2010 |  5:18 pm

Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown Debate for the Calif0ornia governor's 10-2-10

Meg Whitman faces her biggest campaign challenge in tonight's California gubernatorial debate.

After spending way more than $120 million, much of it her own money, to become the Golden state's next Republican governor, the former eBay CEO needs to come across to viewers as the businesswoman she was and paint her opponent, Jerry Brown, as the professional elected official he has been his entire life.

She's newer on the scene; hence, her immense advertising budget. He's already been governor for two terms, along with  numerous other offices.

Unless they're angrily throwing out another useless Democrat like Gray Davis in favor of a celebrity such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Californians tend to....

...go Democrat the last couple of decades in Senate and presidential voting. Whitman trails slightly in the polls with just 21 days to go, but it remains close given the broad dissatisfaction among voters about where their state/country seems to be going.

Although many forget that Californians, like voters in some three dozen other states, have been casting their early ballots for a week already. Rendering the Tom Brokaw-moderated debate irrelevant for thousands of voters already. One-third of the votes cast in the 2008 national elections were early.

But this is not a usual midterm election year. With the economy still sour and California's unemployment rate of 12.4% No. 3 in the country, Democrats can't take even California for granted.

President Obama and Joe Biden have been to the state more than a half dozen times to help the embattled reelection bid of Sen. Barbara Boxer. And Brown is even calling in the likes of Bill Clinton, who so thoroughly crushed him in their presidential primary debates so many years ago.

Brokaw's goal tonight should be to push the candidates for substance on how to address California's crippling serial budget crises and address the crushing public pension finances.

Brown and Whitman for their part will try to Velcro themselves to their planned talking points: Brown's references to Whitman's wealth, as if he's on food stamps, perhaps an allusion to her Maidgate problem. Whitman will hit again at Brown's lifelong tenure in California politics and intimate ties to unions. She'll probably avoid the "whore" word used by some Brown supporter in reference to Whitman.

You won't hear Brown refer much to Obama or Obamacare, although the head of his party is still more popular than not there. And you won't hear Whitman cite other prominent Republicans like you-know-who, the Republican who used to be Alaska's governor.

Sarah Palin will be in California this Saturday for a public Victory Rally in Anaheim for the Republican National Committee and another one in Florida the next weekend. But, gee, the campaign schedule for Whitman and fellow Republican, Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, simply will not permit them to attend.

Absent a colossal gaffe like Gerald Ford's Poland slip or a touche moment like Ronald Reagan's age quip to Walter Mondale, these televised debates end up meaning as much as midterm exams in college. They seem really important at midterm times, but in the end they only become part of the final grade.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Oct. 2 debate pool via Getty Images