BREAKING: At The California Women's Conference -- Stick a Fork In Meg Whitman (Done)?

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What started off as a lightweight chat among seasoned politicos (current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and gubernatorial candidates Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown) at the Women's Conference in Long Beach developed unexpected heat when Matt Lauer asked Whitman and Brown if they'd remove all negative ads from the airwaves.

The brutal campaign season, a tough battle in which Whitman has spent over $160 million of her personal fortune to prevail over Brown's 40-year track record in public service, has meant an almost suffocating presence by the Whitman campaign on radio and tv.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman answers questions during the third debate with Democratic candidate Jerry Brown at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, California on October 12, 2010.  UPI/George Nikitin Photo via Newscom

The discussion veered from candidates obviously pandering to the female audience by citing the important influences mothers or grandmothers had been to them, to Whitman declaring herself in sympathy with Schwarzenegger over how terrible the state's public education system has become. (By chance was Schwarzenegger governor during any of that time that public education was consistently underfunded?)

Matt Lauer prefaced his question by calling the campaign season "negative" and "a bloodbath." He looked each candidate in the eye and asked them if they would consider removing all negative ads from the airwaves until election day.

With each campaign no doubt having sunk a lot of money in last minute media buys in the final week before voting, the candidates bobbed and wove for a moment, sniffing the wind for the advantage. Jerry Brown tested out the room, saying that "Sometimes negativity is in the eye of the beholder. But I'd be willing to talk to the Whitman campaign about it."

Meg Whitman came back with a gentle rebuke, appearing to agree that negative ads were omnipresent but not taking responsibility for any of them, saying that she hasn't been happy with Brown's attacks against her. Her comments had an air of calculated woundedness. This engendered loud boos from the mostly female audience.

Brown replied, "I'm willing to take my ads off the air." He was rewarded with lengthy applause. He visibly flowered, like a bud opening to the sun. Whitman said nothing. Lauer tried to wrap up the conversation, citing time limits.

Sitting governor Schwarzenegger intervened, trying to smooth things over. "Since this is my and Maria's conference and we're hosting this, I don't want to schvitz about an extra three minutes." But, he allowed, he didn't want to force a candidate to make a snap decision when it could really gum up the intricate and expensive plans of a campaign. It seemed to damp down the moment.

But then Meg Whitman said, "I'll agree to remove all ads that can be construed as negative, but I do want to leave ones up that show a difference between my opponent and myself." She pointed out that Brown has a record of 40 years that needs addressing, but already her comments were overwhelmed by extra loud, long jeers from the women in the audience.

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That was all the opening Brown needed for a sly, stealthy wit to emerge. He said, and it'll probably be what we see on TV for the next week, "I have a good ad: it shows Meg Whitman moving to California to live the dream 30 years ago....and I was governor then."

Brown capitalized on the opportunity to plug his latest ad, released yesterday.

The room exploded into laughter and applause. Whitman's face stiffened. Any previous advantage she may have gained from the crowd by citing "Waiting for Superman" and announcing she plans to "go after the California Teachers' Association" were drowned out by the clear sense that Brown had made his point in an irrefutable way.

And that's how 40 years of experience in public service can see the ins and outs of a situation, as opposed to someone who waited to the age of 46 to vote.

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