LONG BEACH Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was shaken Tuesday in a high-stakes appearance with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic rival Jerry Brown, drawing jeers from an audience of women when she refused to stop airing negative TV ads.
Prodded by "Today" show host Matt Lauer, Brown said he would stop airing attack ads if Whitman would, too. When she refused, a crowd gathered to attend an annual women's conference booed the candidate seeking to become California's first female governor. The event drew an estimated 14,000 people.
It was a further setback for the billionaire former eBay CEO, already trailing in polls one week before Election Day. Not only did Brown claim a piece of political high ground, however impractical, but because of Whitman's refusal, he is free to keep attacking on TV.
"That hurts," said Renee Van Vechten, an assistant professor of government at the University of Redlands. "I don't know how much it will hurt (Whitman), but it certainly won't help."
The exchange between Whitman and Brown, at first lady Maria Shriver's annual conference, came near the end of one of the more intriguing events of the campaign.
Schwarzenegger, a lame duck governor whose popularity is at a near record-low, has declined to endorse either candidate. He was joined onstage by Whitman and Brown, who have criticized one another by making unflattering comparisons to the current governor.
Yet the conversation was mostly amiable until Lauer, calling the race "a bloodbath in many ways," asked the candidates if they would pledge to "end the negativity," a measure he said would "give the people of California a break."
Whitman and Brown have spent millions of dollars battering each other in the most expensive general election contest in state history. "We have heard enough talk about slurs and housekeepers," Lauer said. "We know you are both flawed people. Everybody in this room is flawed."
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