Give credit to Matt Lauer.
In moderating the freewheeling discussion between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman at today's Women's Conference in Long Beach, The Today Show host turned what could have been a rehash of the same old talking points into a tart yet measured back-and-forth that managed to make a little news.
Brown and Whitman agreed weeks ago to attend the conference, where they were joined by Lauer and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but word has it that both sides would have been just as happy sitting this one out. With just a week to go before the election, both candidates have largely been content to let rallies and multimillion-dollar ad blitzes speak for them.
That's where Lauer comes in. Toward the end of the roughly 30-minute discussion, Lauer challenged both candidates to pull their negative ads from the airwaves, drawing raucous applause from the audience.
He didn't stop there. Rather than letting the candidates simply brush off the suggestion, he kept beating on the point. Eventually, Brown agreed to pull his attack ads if Whitman would do the same, suggesting they both run simple biographical ad spots laying out their positions on various issues.
Whitman hedged, saying she would pull her ads that she considered personal attacks, but not those that she said pointed out Brown's record or his policy positions. Which category ads like this would fall in is up to you:
Lauer and the crowd pushed for more, but Whitman didn't bend. Both candidates then tossed in jabs at each other, with Whitman's in particular drawing some boos, before the two agreed to discuss the matter further offstage. Schwarzenegger even stepped in for a minute as the peacemaker.
Arnold has special insight into Whitman's conundrum. Both of them employed political strategist Mike Murphy, whose advice and direction presumably compose a large portion of Whitman's media strategy. At one point during the conversation, Schwarzenegger could be heard joking about the inevitable hand-wringing Murphy must have been doing backstage.
Recent campaign disclosures show both candidates' ad spending has been ramping up. Whitman spent $7.7 million on ad buys in the second week of October – her largest buy this year. Brown has boosted his weekly ad spending into the $4 million to $5 million range. Both have been helped by independent groups.