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Editorial: One debate in governor’s race is just not enough

On a talk-radio program Friday morning, Republican Neel Kashkari claimed to have scored a knockout punch in the debate the night before with Gov. Jerry Brown.

Nuh-uh, Brown supporters rebutted, their guy was the clear victor.

They are both wrong. Nobody won.

It might have been the format. Thursday’s quick-moving discussion made it perfect for soundbites, not so great for thorough, thoughtful responses.

The candidates talked over each other, the host and even the panelists. Viewers were left with free-floating slogans in their minds – “crazy train” vs. “gravy train,” “plastic vs. paper” – not real ideas.

It was fine as a first debate. Problem is, it will probably be the only debate leading up to the Nov. 4 election – unless the governor relents.

After he came in second in the June primary, Kashkari challenged Brown to 10 debates. It was not an accident that it was the same challenge Brown had thrown to Republican Meg Whitman in 2010. This time, though, the governor wasn’t so thrilled with the idea of verbal sparring. He agreed to only one, hourlong debate – and on his terms and turf.

After Thursday’s debate, Brown affirmed that, for him, it’s one and done. Where’s the guy who was raring for the rough and tumble, and wanted to go “mano a mano” with Whitman four years ago?

The governor should reconsider this one-debate plan. At least think about it. There are still two months before all the ballots are due, and voters need more before they agree to take another four-year ride with him.

Yes, Brown went into the debate with a 16-percentage-point lead over Kashkari, according to Field Poll results. And, yes, he will probably win, and should.

But debating isn’t just about scoring points, and Brown should look beyond the cold calculation of just what it will take to stay in office for another term and see the debate for the opportunity it is: a rare chance for Californians to hear their governor respond to direct challenges and different views. That only happens every four years.

Besides, there was too much left unsaid.

Brown did a good job of painting a picture of what he found when he got (back) to Sacramento four years ago – the place in shambles from a Republican governor at odds with a Democrat-controlled Legislature and the budget in ruins from the Great Recession.

He talked about the hard choices he had to make about service cuts. And he correctly noted how much improved state government is today – a state with a budget surplus and starting to reinvest in its core infrastructure left sitting way too long.

And then what happens?

Maybe the governor just ran out of time and was too busy defending the high-speed rail to outline his plan for the next four years. But he must know that he didn’t give voters a reason to support him.

Just one more debate, that’s all we’re asking. One with time for both to expand on their plans and ideas. His opponent is up for it.

“I’m willing to take Gov. Brown on again if he wants to have another go at the apple,” Kashkari told KABC on Friday. Kashkari’s campaign confirmed that it has accepted other invitations from organizations hoping to hold a debate.

Four years ago, Brown showed the same sort of zeal for mixing it up on the issues for the benefit of voters and asked for 10 town-hall meetings – of any style of discourse Whitman wanted.

“Let’s go to the people of California and have an unscripted exchange about the issues that we face,” he said at the time.

Yeah, governor, let’s do that.