LONG BEACH -- During a remarkable event at which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on the same stage with his two potential successors, Democrat Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he would stop running negative TV ads if opponent Meg Whitman does the same.
"No problem," Brown said.
No deal, said Whitman, who trailed by 13 points in the latest Los Angeles Times-University of Southern California poll.
The sharp and often amusing exchange occurred at the annual Women's Conference, sponsored by Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver.
In explaining her position, Whitman said "people need to understand" Brown's record as governor from 1975 to 1983 and as mayor of Oakland.
Whitman, the former eBay CEO, then proceeded to attack that record, saying that Brown "left this state in worse shape."
The remark drew boos from the mostly female audience of several thousand.
Many of the billionaire's ads attacking Brown on those fronts have been criticized by news organizations and the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org as either false or highly misleading.
Brown's ads have generally been more positive, but he has had the advantage of labor groups backing his candidacy that have spent millions to attack Whitman's business record and character.
Whitman and Brown were placed on the hot seat by the forum's moderator, "Today" show host Matt Lauer, who asked them to give Californians "a break"
Brown first said that, sometimes, negativity is "in the eye of the beholder." However, he eventually said: "I will take down any advertising remotely construed" as a negative attack.
Whitman agreed that there was no place in the campaign for personal attacks, but she seemed to say that what political consultants now euphemistically call "comparison ads" or "issue ads" are just fine.
At one point during the exchange, Lauer suggested Schwarzenegger play the role of "the referee." But the governor didn't seem thrilled with the idea.
Instead, he used the opportunity to praise both Whitman and Brown, noting that Whitman "will make history" if she becomes California's first female governor.
And Brown and his father, Pat Brown, were both good governors, said Schwarzenegger, who has endorsed neither candidate.
Asked by Lauer to rate his own governorship a letter grade of "A" through "F," Schwarzenegger said, to laughs: "I give myself a straight 10."
The forum was the first time Schwarzenegger, Whitman and Brown had appeared on the same stage. From its inception, the meeting was expected to be more than a little awkward.
Whitman has tried to distance herself from Schwarzenegger, saying she respects his ideas but feels he failed to execute them properly. Brown has generally had a cordial relationship with the governor, but last week he unleashed a TV ad that showed Whitman and Schwarzenegger, pictured side by side, spouting the same platitudes.
The conclusion of that ad: Having a political neophyte run the state didn't work the first time.
Removing the negative ads at this point in the campaign would probably hurt Whitman more than Brown, since she has a lot of catching up to do -- and negative ads do work, despite voters' distaste for them.
Brown reaffirmed the pledge shortly after the appearance, saying: "I pledge to pull my negative ads off the air immediately and only run positive ads through Election Day if Meg Whitman agrees to do the same."
Sarah Pompei, a spokeswoman for the Whitman campaign, said the campaign will continue "running fair and truthful ads that highlight Jerry Brown's long record on the issues."
For more than six months, Pompei added, "the Brown campaign and its allies in the public employee unions have been running a negative campaign against Meg Whitman."
Whitman in recent days has been coy about how much more money she intends to spend on her campaign. She has already donated $141.5 million out of her own pocket -- breaking New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's self-funding record of $109.2 million.
Pressed repeatedly by ABC's Diane Sawyer on Monday if she intends to spend more of her own money, Whitman said: "We'll see how it goes."
Contact Ken McLaughlin at 408-920-5552.