Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown met for their third and final debate Tuesday evening, a contentious exchange that touched on tabloid-esque controversies that have dominated the campaign recently, as well as on issues of how each would govern the state.

One tense exchange occurred over revelations last week that someone in Brown's campaign was unwittingly recorded calling Whitman a political "whore" after Brown failed to hang up a telephone.

Moderator Tom Brokaw noted that Californians had yet to hear any outrage from Brown on the matter and said some women considered the word comparable to calling an African American person the "N-word."

Brown said he did not agree with that comparison and affirmed the apology his campaign issued soon after the tape recording was reported by The Times. But he immediately asked whether Whitman had chastised her campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, for once referring to politicians as "whores."

Whitman shot back that it wasn't the same thing and said, "The fact you are defending your campaign for a slur and a personal attack on me, I think it's not befitting of California, it's not befitting of the office that you're running for."

Brown noted that the taped conversation was private and questioned the legality of the recording, saying, "I'm sorry it happened," and then: "That does not represent anything other than things that happen in a campaign."

Sparks also flew outside of the debate hall on Dominican University's campus, where protesters chanted and traded barbs. A spokesman for Laura Wells, the Green Party candidate for governor, said Wells was arrested as she protested her exclusion from the debate.

Inside Angelico Hall, Whitman and Brown met before hundreds of people and Brokaw, the veteran NBC journalist. Brokaw had broken his ankle recently, so he was seated on the stage while the candidates stood at lecterns. Brokaw said his ankle was a metaphor for California.

"We're both broken at the moment," he said before beginning his questions. "The difference is I hope to be repaired by the first of the year. It may take California just a little longer."

The format of the debate, with a sole moderator who asked questions and refereed, allowed for a more freewheeling exchange than in the contenders' previous matchups in Davis and Fresno, and the candidates engaged each other frequently and directly.

During a discussion of the candidates' prescriptions for curing the economy, Brown jumped on Whitman's proposal to cut the capital gains tax, saying the beneficiaries would largely be wealthy people, including those who have donated $30 million to her campaign.

"How much money will you save if the tax breaks were in effect this year or last year?" Brown asked Whitman.

Whitman demurred but said, "I'm an investor, and investors will benefit from this. So will job creators, and I was a job creator. We have got to get someone in office who knows what the conditions are for small businesses to grow and thrive," she said. "Your business is politics. You've been doing this 40 years and you have been part of the war on jobs in this state for 40 years."

The election is three weeks away, and voters are already casting mail ballots. Much of the campaign has taken place through a television ad war, with the candidates locked in a tight battle.

Tuesday marked one of the final opportunities for either candidate to be knocked off his or her scripted message, or to offer more details on how to deal with the state's myriad problems, including its dysfunctional budgeting process and failing schools.

Instead, both candidates stuck to their talking points. Whitman repeatedly listed her three priorities – creating jobs, reducing government spending and fixing schools -- and accused Brown of being beholden to the unions that have spent millions on his behalf. Whitman contributed another $20 million to her effort Tuesday, bringing her personal stake in her election bid to $141.5 million.

"I am spending my own money in this race," she said. "That gives me the independence to go to Sacramento. I will not owe anything to anybody except the voters of California."

Brown said his experience and the independence he feels at 72 mean he alone can do it. "I've been in the kitchen, I've taken heat," he said. "She's been in the bleachers."

Although the Dominican event was the rivals' final official debate, they will take part in a panel discussion Oct. 26 with the man they are vying to replace, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at a women's conference in Long Beach organized by California First Lady Maria Shriver.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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