It was all Matt Lauer's fault, of course. Sure, the co-host of NBC's "Today Show" gave California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown plenty of softball questions that they got to answer as expected -- they love and are inspired by their mothers and spouses. But then, with a little bit of mischief, Lauer rocked California First Lady Maria Shirver's annual California Women's Conference by asking the two why they don't just take down all those negative ads and give California voters a break? Six days to go; just take them down and replace them with positive ads.
"This campaign is bloodbath in so many ways," Lauer said. "Are you willing to make a pledge to end the negativity?"
The request came shortly after the audience of about 14,000 at the Long Beach Convention Center heard a powerful speech from playwright Eve Ensler, bald from cancer treatments, and Lauer hit the sweet spot no one knew they were waiting for. The crowd erupted with cheers and applause and a standing ovation that seemed to shock the candidates and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had just been interviewed about his legacy.
"And would you talk to your surrogate groups" Lauer continued, "and give the California people a break?"
Brown said he would "love to take down all my ads," before going on to try to explain that "negativity is in the eye of the beholder." Well, that didn't go over very well. So he said, "If Meg will do it, I'll be glad to do it."
Whitman, who started her appearance with a glow of sweetness and light about her, tried to explain that ads that focus on character and personal destruction are different from issue ads. She confessed that the attacks on her character have been "very challenging."
"It's not fair, the things I've been called in this campaign," Whitman said.
The audience didn't seem to care about the distinction or the complaint.
Lauer referenced the slur (Brown's aide called Whitman a "whore") and the housekeeper (Whitman employed an illegal immigrant for nine years and fired her when she asked for help becoming a US citizen) and then said, "We know you're both flawed." But the positive ads would show their strengths.
And we'd give you 24 hours, Lauer added, time enough to consult all those consultants.
Brown said that if Whitman took down what could be "reasonably defined" as negative ads, "I pledge that right now....by tomorrow."
The audience cheered.
Back to Whitman. She would be will to take down any ads that could be construed as personal attacks, but not ads on where Brown stands on the issues.
Whitman was royally booed.
In an interesting act of courtesy, Brown kind of stuck up for Whitman, reminding her that she has a good ad out now where she talks directly into the camera and tells her story.
Lauer interrupted, telling Whitman, "you're down in the polls. Why not try something else?"
Whitman hedged. She explained she was "new to politics. People need to know where I stand." Brown has a long track record, she said. People need to understand what's going on here. But she's not being mean-spirited. She then tried to go into Brown's record as Oakland mayor and governor.
Whitman was booed, again.
The ad she's running now, Whitman explained, is about her vision, her personal story. People applauded. "I have lived the California Dream" she said, echoing her ad, and she wants to put that dream back to work for everyone. "California is as much a state of mind as a state. That's what matters."
Brown agrees that Whitman has a "great ad. I have one, too." He noted that in her ad she talks about moving to California 30 years ago because it was such a great place. "Who was governor then?" Brown asked, as the audience cracked up. "That's a positive ad."
Whitman tried to retort but the booing continues, though softer.
Schwarzenegger jumped in and told Lauer not to worry about time -- but perhaps it's not fair to ask the two candidates to come to an agreement in front of the audience. "Their advisors are probably going nuts," he said. And ever the cheerleader, the governor -- who has not endorsed either candidate so as not to break a fragile coalition to defeat Prop 23 -- said the "bottom line" is that California has the best candidates for governor in the nation. Whitman became a top CEO when it wasn't easy for a woman and Brown has been in public service all his life -- Brown's father Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown was Schwarzenegger's hero because of his concentration of California's infrastructure.
"But I disagree with Meg a little," Schwarzenegger said. "California IS the Golden State and we're going to be back."
The candidates posed for pictures with Schwarzenegger and then bolted for the exit.
We'll see if they reach an agreement on bringing down those negative ads with a week to go before the Nov. 2 election.