The California gubernatorial candidates met Tuesday night for a high-stakes final debate riddled with political cliches, like “high-stakes,” a maid eruption, degrading name-calling, and Tom Brokaw. Brokaw let Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman duke it out over budgets and unions for a good 40 minutes before delving into the headline-grabbing stories in the race.

Brown was on defense for most of the night as Whitman’s more TV-friendly style allowed her to deliver smooth answers and attack Brown consistently without seeming unfriendly. But Brown’s worst moment came when asked about a telephone recording, in which one of his staff, unaware he was being recorded, called Whitman a “whore.” Brown made several excuses for the name-calling, even wondering aloud whether it was legal to tape his “private” conversation, but ultimately delivered a half-hearted apology to Whitman. The exchange:

Brokaw: “We’ve heard no outrage from you about the use of that kind of language, which to many women, is the same as calling an African-American the n-word. Have you been in charge of the investigation to find out who’s responsible for using that phrase?”

Brown: “I don’t agree with that comparison, No. 1. Second, this is a 5-week-old conversation picked up on a cell phone with a garbled transmission, very hard to detect who it is. This is not, well, I don’t want to get into the term and how it’s used, but I would say the campaign apologized promptly and I affirm that apology tonight.”

The audience, which was quite active, winced and booed noticeably at Brown’s answer, but Whitman mistepped herself when Brown asked her if she had chastised her campaign chair Pete Wilson for calling the congress “whores” to public employee unions. The audience laughed loudly at Whitman’s incomplete response— “That’s a completely different thing.”—but Brown bailed her out by making yet another excuse for the “whore” comment.

“It’s unfortunate. It was a private conversation,” Brown said. “I’m not even sure it’s legal ’cause you have to get the consent of all the parties and there’s lots of people talking, so again, Ms. Whitman, I’m sorry it happened.”

Judging by the fact that even MSNBC was focusing on Brown’s gaffe this morning, not Whitman’s, I’m gonna declare her the winner on this one.

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NOW endorsed Brown one day after the “whore” story broke, giving him a pass on that, among other comments you wouldn’t imagine a NOW member would approve of:

Amy Siskind, president of the feminist group The New Agenda, told The Daily Caller that Brown has a pattern of disrespecting women. “I think [we are] getting a really good sense now of the tone of Jerry Brown’s campaign as far as his own personal views, not only of Meg Whitman but of women in general, and it’s very disturbing,” Siskind said.

Siskind’s group reports that during his initial foray as governor, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brown was unapologetically hostile toward working mothers. “More women should be in the home, taking care of their children. Then we’d have fewer social problems,” they quote Brown as having said.

It’s almost as if NOW is just a left-leaning political group willing to give cover to any and every gaffeing Democrat, not a women’s group.

Other highlights:

Watching two Californians argue over who dislikes teachers’ and public-employee unions more. The times, they are a-changing. Whitman repeatedly argued that she was in a position to take on unions, attempting to turn her self-funded campaign into a positive: “I will not owe anything to anyone except for the voters of California.”

Whitman cracking up at a Brown gaffe, in which he almost said he had the police in his “back pocket.”

Plenty more video, here.

Mary Katharine Ham is a writer/videoblogger for The Daily Caller these days. In between Tucker’s mandatory bow-tie-tying boot camps, she edits videos, which end up here and here. Come visit sometime!

Tags: California