In challenging Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner to an unprecedented series of pre-primary, three-way debates Brown signaled a willingness to plunge into the general election for governor even before the candidates have been chosen – as long as it’s on somebody else’s dime.
“Come out from behind those glittering poppy fields, those beautiful car crashes on top of the mountain,” he told the delegates at the California Democratic Party state convention, referring to TV ads from Republican wannabes Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner. “This is going to be mano a mano, one candidate against the other. Let’s hear the different ideas.”
The partisan crowd at the Democratic state convention, many of whom have waited for months for Brown to aggressively engage in the campaign, reacted with enthusiasm. Which was job No. 1 for the weekend for the 72-year-old attorney general and presumptive party nominee.
The unexpected debate gambit – coming after advisers suggested for days that Brown would refrain from aiming fire at Whitman and Poizner – was a shrewd tactical win-win for crafty Crusty the General, for at least three reasons:
1- The debate challenge, which fired up delegates, showed nervous Democrats that Brown is no drooling Jerryiatric and will stop turning the other cheek as Republicans bash him with abandon.
2- It is an attempt to help Poizner, who’s been attacking eMeg on the airwaves for several weeks, by making her look like a chicken and fueling the narrative that she’s hiding and trying to buy the election.
3- With no heavy lifting, Brown won the news cycle and scored an ongoing talking point – What do you mean I’m not campaigning? She’s the one who’s ducking me.
“We cannot delay debating solutions. The need is immediate and millions and millions of dollars in an orgy of spending for TV commercials is not a substitute for an honest and open discussion,” Brown said.
Brown’s change of heart apparently came after he saw new private polling that reportedly shows Poizner closing the gaping margin Whitman has enjoyed in the GOP primary. He also apparently was swayed to go on the offense after seeing a Republican Governor’s Association ad – very similar to the California Chamber of Commerce “issues” ad that was pulled because it was so purely anti-Brown.
Asked at press conference after his speech what he would do if only one of the Republicans accepted the challenge, Brown said that would not do. Calbuzz asked if he really thinks they both will accept.
“I wouldn’t have made the challenge if I didn’t take into account the possibility they might accept it,” he said, drawing a laugh from reporters.
On cue, Poizner’s camp immediately accepted the invitation. Communications director Jarrod Agen:
“Steve Poizner is happy to debate his plan for California against lying corporate CEO Meg Whitman and special interest career politician Jerry Brown. We match up nicely against those two and are willing to debate anywhere, anytime. The voters of California deserve to see these candidates discuss solutions for California and answer difficult questions in an unscripted, unedited setting.”
And not surprisingly, for a campaign that is in the lead, Whitman’s chief consultant Mike Murphy, was considerably less interested:
“It a cynical ploy to elevate Poizner. Jacques must have thought up that one,” he said, referring to Jacques Barzaghi, Brown’s former inscrutable aide de camp.”Jerry should debate this own primary opponents and his own record since he’s been on every side of every issue.
Hearing that Whitman demurred, Poizner’s Agen said, “The Republican nominee will have to debate Jerry Brown. If Meg Whitman is afraid to debate him, then she should not be the Republican nominee.”
Brown, too, responded to the Whitman campaign’s rejection of the call for three-way debates:
Private corporations sometimes hide behind slick advertising campaigns, but it’s wrong for a serious political candidate to do the same. I urge Meg Whitman to reconsider. Surely, if she believes she is good enough to be governor of California she must also consider herself competent enough to appear with her opponents. A candidate for public office should not act like a used car salesperson who relies on misleading TV ads. Public service is a higher calling, one that demands integrity, openness and honesty. I encourage Meg Whitman to join with Steve Poizner and me in three joint appearances.