Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown on Saturday challenged his potential GOP rivals to an unprecedented bipartisan debate before the state's June primary, responding to criticism that he has been slow to enter the political fight.
Outgunned by the personal wealth of Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, Brown told cheering delegates at the state party's annual convention that the campaign for governor cannot be purchased with millions in television ads.
Instead, he called for a series of "honest, prime-time" three-way debates before the June 8 primary.
"Let's hear the different ideas," Brown said. "The key here, is this a democracy?"
If the debates happen, they'll be a two-man affair. Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner, was quick to accept the invitation, but Whitman's campaign rejected the proposal after initially saying it was open to considering it. Instead, her campaign said Brown should debate other Democrats who will appear on the June ballot.
Brown, a 40-year veteran of California politics, faces only token opponents.
The former eBay chief executive has poured $59 million from her personal fortune into the race. Much of the money has been used to blanket the airwaves with television and radio ads and collect a stable of experienced political consultants.
Whitman and Poizner have debated previously, but it would be highly unusual to conduct a bipartisan debate before winners are selected in the primary.
With California mired in recession and struggling with perpetual budget deficits, Brown said all three leading candidates owe it to voters to debate publicly about how they would solve the state's fiscal crisis, address cuts to public schools and universities, and create jobs.
"These are not ordinary times," he said. "We face an extraordinary crisis."
Brown's challenge drew the loudest reaction from delegates gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center and came as Democrats are trying to reclaim momentum in an election year that presents a number of challenges for the party in power.
Surveys show Brown and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who is seeking a fourth term, running about even with their potential Republican challengers.
The convention marks the start of the party's effort to sell its vision to voters left angry by the bruising recession. Speakers portrayed Democratic efforts at the national level to reform health care, stimulate the economy and impose regulations on Wall Street as steps that will benefit the working class and middle-income Americans.
Party leaders proclaimed what is emerging as a central campaign strategy — criticizing the top Republican candidates as wealthy corporate pawns who are out-of-touch with the needs of middle-class Californians.
Boxer urged Democrats to unite behind her candidacy with the excitement witnessed at tea party rallies around the nation.
"I need you by my side," she told more than 1,000 cheering party delegates attending the California Democratic Party's annual convention.
"We passed health care reform and we should be proud of it, proud of it," Boxer told the crowd. "I need you to be excited, as excited as the tea party people are. Will you help me?"
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa opened Saturday's session with a full-throated endorsement of the party's top candidates.
While Brown and Boxer face no serious opposition in the June primary, both have been subject to constant attacks by the Republicans vying to challenge them in November.
Villaraigosa sought to counter one of the Republicans' attacks against Boxer, that she has accomplished little during her three terms in the Senate. He credited Boxer with bringing federal transportation dollars that will double the city's rail system and create 166,000 construction jobs.
"It may be the most important Senate race in the country," Villaraigosa said. "Now I can tell you she's fought for us, and she needs us to fight for her."
Villaraigosa said the party will go on offense: "Democrats, it's game time."
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