Although many California voters might not know it, the state could make history next month by electing Meg Whitman as its first woman governor.
The Republican candidate certainly hasn't made much of that fact in her speeches or paid ads, and neither has her Democratic rival Jerry Brown. In fact, gender had largely stayed out of this high-profile race, as Whitman and Brown tussled over creating jobs and tackling the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficits.
That all changed last week when a member of the Brown campaign – a woman – was overheard in a voice mail recording suggesting that his campaign call Whitman a "whore" for allegedly cutting pension deals to win police endorsements.
Whitman jumped in days later by directly addressing women voters in Tuesday's debate and describing what she said was their outrage over the word's use. Brown apologized for the slur.
"I think every Californian and especially women know exactly what's going on here," Whitman said. "And that is a deeply offensive term to women."
Whitman's jab departed from her apparent game plan of letting her gender speak for itself. Like Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, Whitman stresses her corporate résumé.
One early exception occurred last year, when Whitman explained her poor voting record by saying she had been busy supporting her husband's career. That comment earned her some ridicule from media and women groups.
"They don't want to be treated as women, they want to be treated as candidates," said Barbara O'Connor, professor emeritus of communication at Sacramento State, about Whitman and Fiorina. "(Whitman) doesn't talk about raising her kids or get warm and fuzzy about her husband. Her ads show her square-on talking about her time as CEO."
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