Jerry Brown's the official frontrunner now, after Meg Whitman endured Steve Poizner's assault and saw her positives knocked way back. And typically the frontrunner in a campaign tries to avoid direct debates; they can't help and, with a mistake or two, they can wind up hurting.
But Jerry being Jerry, he's already challenging Whitman to a series of ten debates, and Whitman is already ducking. That's because Whitman wants this entire campaign to be about TV ads -- the only area in which she has a clear, indisputable advantage.
Brown's a little unpredictable in debates. He's smart and can be charming and is certainly experienced -- but he can also veer off on tangents and make some remarkable statements, not all of which are good sound bites. Whitman would be carefully, perfectly scripted. But in the end, it would force her to deal directly with journalists and her opponent -- and she doesn't want to do that.
What Whitman plans to do is start right away, tomorrow, airing a blizzard of ads attacking Brown -- as too liberal, too flakey, too inconsistent -- whatever she can get away with. She's been knocked down in the polls, and now she wants to knock him down, too.
She can't get too far with ads promoting herself -- California has seen those ads, over and over, and people are getting sick of them. We know her line; she's gotten about all the positive impressions she's ever going to get. And she's not breaking 50 percent in the polling.
The only way she can win is to tarnish Brown -- and in the end, he's going to have to swing back and attack her. It's going to be a long, ugly summer.