Ready your TV and your stomach for an hour of smears, self-aggrandizement and, with any luck, an airing of the issues facing California: Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown meet tonight in Davis for the first of three televised debates.
With the gubernatorial race dead even and only five weeks until Election Day, the stakes are unusually high.
Nearly a fifth of likely voters remain undecided, and Tom Hollihan, a professor of communications at University of Southern California, said the debate is "probably the most significant event leading up to the election."
Whitman, the Republican nominee and former eBay CEO, will be known to most voters from her TV commercials, a barrage of messages marched out for months by the most expensive self-financed campaign in U.S. history.
It might benefit the billionaire candidate to loosen up tonight, to demonstrate she does not live in a rarified world and to let viewers see how she thinks.
"Not just a slogan," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. "Compound sentences, or sentences that actually manage to capture a fully expressed idea."
If Whitman is, as Petracca says, the "sound bite queen," he calls Brown, the Democratic nominee, "Big Gulp."
Said Petracca: "There's too much when he opens his mouth."
It's not only that Brown's unscripted remarks include comments he sometimes comes to regret, experts in political discourse say. It's that he tends to meander when he speaks, an unconstrained style that has no place in the rigid format of a debate.
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