California governor debate turns into verbal brawl

SAN RAFAEL, California (Reuters) - A debate between California gubernatorial candidates turned heated and personal on Tuesday as Republican Internet billionaire Meg Whitman and veteran Democratic politician Jerry Brown belittled each other’s proposals and abilities.

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Brown has a small lead in opinion polls ahead of the November 2 election in the race to run the troubled U.S. state, but the debate showed the former eBay Inc CEO’s competitive streak.

California has the largest population of any U.S. state and its economy has been one of the hardest hit in the nation, with unemployment above 12 percent. Jobs and government spending are the top voter concerns in most polls.

Brown went on the offensive early in the debate. He said a tax break that Whitman wants in order to stimulate business was merely a boon to millionaires and billionaires at the expense of schools.

“Ms. Whitman, I’d like to ask you, how much money would you save if these tax breaks were in effect this year or last year?” he asked.

Whitman, 54, admitted she would benefit as an investor, then fired back at the 72-year-old former governor, who has been a fixture in state politics for decades.

“My track record is creating jobs,” she said. “My business is creating jobs. Your business is politics. You have been doing this for 40 years, and you have been part of a war on jobs in this state for 40 years.”

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The audience, normally asked to stay quiet during a debate, frequently burst into applause or roared.

Brown apologized that one of his aides had described Whitman as a “whore.” Whitman argued that her campaign chairman’s use of the word “whore” to refer to Congress was different from the Brown campaign’s use of the word.

During the debate, Whitman pounded her stump-speech themes of creating jobs through cutting regulations, improving state finances by being more efficient, and improving education. Brown stressed his experience and his passion.

“I’ve got the intestinal fortitude to do what is right for California,” he said.

Whitman proved spirited and comfortable on the counterattack, touting her endorsements from law enforcement groups, for example.

“The notion that Jerry Brown is going to be tough on crime is just a fairy tale,” she said.

Brown had a 7 percentage point lead over Whitman among likely voters in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. But with a personal fortune over $1 billion and no reluctance to spend, Whitman remains a tough competitor.

Editing by Will Dunham