SACRAMENTO -- It's a withering television ad that has created the first storm of the gubernatorial race: Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton eviscerating Jerry Brown in a 1992 debate, accusing Brown of lying about whether he raised taxes as governor.
Brown's response has compounded the awkwardness. Over the weekend he turned the issue away from Whitman into a wrestling match with Clinton, telling a group, "I mean, Clinton's a nice guy but whoever said he always tells the truth?"
He continued: "You remember, right? There's that whole story there about did he or didn't he. OK, I did not have taxes with this state. So, let's be clear about that."
Brown tried to minimize the damage Monday at a news conference at his Oakland campaign headquarters, saying he hadn't meant to insult Clinton, the former two-term president who remains perhaps the most popular Democrat among Californians.
"Bill Clinton was an excellent president. It was wrong for me to joke about an incident from many years ago, and I'm sorry," he said. "The big issue here is that Meg Whitman is running an ad featuring President Clinton that she knows to be false."
But Brown's defense raises the question of whether his relationship with Clinton -- dating back to that brutal 1992 campaign -- remains so damaged that he can't ask a fellow Democrat to defend him against his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman.
"Brown's response is even more devastating to himself than the ad," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "It might have been smarter to make nice with Clinton and have Clinton denounce the ad as out of context. But Clinton isn't likely to do that now."
Brown said he has spoken with intermediaries about asking Clinton to repudiate Whitman's ad.
At this point, Pitney said, Brown has redirected the focus from whether the ad is accurate to his conflict with Clinton.
"That's inexplicable," Pitney said. "Ads and gaffes don't normally change the course of a campaign. But in this confrontation, Whitman comes out ahead."
Brown argues that in that 1992 debate Clinton had used inaccurate information based on a faulty CNN report to charge that the former California governor had raised taxes. Brooks Jackson, the CNN reporter who is now the director of FactCheck.org, acknowledged this weekend that he had erred when he reported that taxes were higher at the end of Brown's eight-year term than when he took office.
"Brown is right," Jackson wrote in a post on FactCheck.org, an influential nonpartisan website. "I made a mistake in my 1992 report."
Taxes under Brown went down from $6.89 to $6.56 per $100 of income, a 4.8 percent decrease.
The figures don't include the dramatic reductions in local property taxes triggered by Proposition 13, passed in 1978.
But Jackson noted that state taxes went up during four of Brown's eight years -- and that during six of those years, they were higher than before he took office. But, Jackson said, they were lower during his final two years.
"The point I was trying to make in 1992 remains valid," he wrote. "Brown's claims to have been a tax-cutting governor -- then and now -- need to be seen in context. As I said then, rising taxes in Brown's early years helped bring about a tax revolt."
Brown said that Whitman's refusal to pull the ad shows she has little regard for the truth.
"Why does Whitman run ads that are false? Because she thinks that a billionaire can just make things up and lie in a political campaign," Brown said. "Her track record of not telling the truth is long, and gets longer every day. She hasn't told the truth about my record as governor. She hasn't told the truth about my record as mayor. She hasn't even told the truth about her own record.
"I've made my share of mistakes, and my inappropriate joke about President Clinton is one of them," he added. "But from me you'll always get the truth."
Tucker Bounds, a Whitman spokesman, said the Whitman campaign does not plan to take the ad off the air because, he said, "everything Bill Clinton said in the ad is certifiably, 100 percent true.
"Jerry Brown is trying to distract voters from his record," Bounds added. "He did oppose Proposition 13, he turned a budget surplus into a deficit, and taxes went up for six of Brown's eight years he was governor."
The tiff comes at a time when both candidates are trying to cut through to voters -- and break free from their deadlock. Whitman has had a dual track of TV advertisements on air since the day after the June primary, with glossy, upbeat pieces extolling her business credentials running simultaneously with attacks against Brown.
Brown began airing his first TV advertisement on Labor Day, a single 30-second spot that extols his first terms as governor. He has yet to turn his focus on Whitman, a strategy that some are questioning.
Bay Area News Group staff writer Ken McLaughlin contributed to this story.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.