SACRAMENTO — If you listen closely to the leaders of California's two major parties, you'd think voters will be choosing between a political dinosaur and a phony media creation come November.
Those are the themes likely to be ingrained in the public's consciousness by the end of what's expected to be a long slog of scurrilous charges and countercharges between the parties and gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman through the summer and beyond.
On Tuesday, John Burton, the Democratic Party chairman, traded barbs with Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon debate.
Whitman, the GOP candidate who has spent more than $90 million on her campaign so far, can't do a single thing without first checking with her consultants, Burton said.
"I don't know if she's alone when she goes to the bathroom," Burton chided. "They've got her totally protected from herself."
Democratic nominee Brown, 72, has been around for so long, said Nehring, that his original registration card was done in Roman numerals.
"This will be a contest of the party of the past versus the party of the future," Nehring said. "In the year when 82 percent of Californians believe the state needs to go in a different direction, the Democrats ticket is led by Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown, who've combined for 59 years of government service.
"When Boxer was first elected to Congress in 1982, 'The A-Team' was a TV show and not in a movie, and I think Jerry Brown's registration card was in Roman numerals. This is not the team that's going to be able to credibly say they're the team that's going to be about change and moving in a different direction."
Burton hammered away at Whitman, 53, the billionaire ex-CEO of eBay, for refusing to release her tax returns, her apparent reluctance to debate often and her past ties to embattled investment firm Goldman Sachs. And he took a jab at Whitman for a $200,000 settlement she had to pay out to an employee Whitman apparently shoved during a disagreement at eBay.
"When you've got her kind of money and you've got that kind of reputation, you're able to push or slap somebody that didn't do something right for you," Burton said to reporters after the debate. "I think they're just afraid to let Meg be Meg because they would rather create Meg than have people see Meg."
Burton said that "sooner or later Meg Whitman has to stop hiding. Jerry's willing to do 11 debates and she's willing to do one. If Jerry's as bad as she said he is, I'd think she'd want to debate him six times a week and twice on Sunday."
Nehring said he's not surprised Brown is calling for a number of debates.
"If I was Jerry Brown, I'd do anything I could to hit the reset button as often as I could," Nehring said. "He's the de facto incumbent. The guy's gotta do something to change the direction of the campaign. Quirkiness is not a strategy. It's not working for him so far."
Nehring said he could not have been more pleased with the contrast between the two parties as he was on the day after the June 8 primary, when Republicans held a boisterous rally with all statewide candidates arm in arm.
Meanwhile, he said, Brown "was in some tight, cramped room in an athletic club saying, 'Is anybody here?' I just cannot believe how badly they've mismanaged their messaging out of the primary. It's extraordinary."
Nehring cited numbers that showed more voters prefer generic Republicans for Congress, President Barack Obama's approval rating dropping, and the precipitous drop in self-identified Democrats in national polls.
"The political jet stream is moving in our favor," Nehring said.
Burton scoffed at the notion.
"Changes of winds and winds of change, who the hell knows where the wind goes. It tends to change," Burton said. "Do you ever watch the weather report? The wind's coming here, but they go there?"
California is different from the rest of the nation, Burton said.
"In California, health care is popular. It's really going to be up to the people. ... We've seen time and again where money doesn't do it. It's up to the people to figure out who's real and who isn't."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.