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Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman and the Bill Clinton "trap"

Updated: 7:15 p.m.

By Felicia Sonmez

If former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) beats state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) in the California governor's race this fall, she may have former President Bill Clinton to thank for the win.

Whitman's camp went up with its latest TV ad last week, a spot featuring footage of Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, brutally criticizing his then-presidential rival, Brown, at a 1992 Democratic primary debate.

"CNN -- not me -- CNN says his assertion about his tax record was 'just plain wrong,'" Clinton said in the April 1992 debate. "Jerry Brown went out there and took credit for the fact that the people of California voted for Proposition 13, which lowered taxes, which he opposed, and now he's going around taking credit for it."

(Worth noting: The author of the 1992 CNN report that Clinton was quoting has since come out and acknowledged that he made an error in the report, although he maintains that the general point "remains valid.")

The bigger problem for Brown is the fact that he directly criticized Clinton in his response to the ad -- and that the tangled relationship between the two means that the former president isn't likely to come to his defense.

"I mean, Clinton's a nice guy, but who ever said he always told the truth?" Brown said at an event on Sunday. "You remember, right? There's that whole story there about 'did he or didn't he.'"

"I did not have taxes with this state, so let's be clear about that," Brown added in a none-too-subtle jab at Clinton's statement during the Lewinsky scandal ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky").

Brown told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon that he had called Clinton's office to apologize and had spoken to one of the former president's aides.

"Bill Clinton was an excellent president. It was wrong for me to joke about an incident from many years ago, and I'm sorry," Brown said in a statement.

There's been little love lost between Brown and Clinton over the years.

One (of many) examples: During the 1992 campaign, the two had a very testy exchange about Hillary Clinton's work at the Rose law firm; "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife," Clinton snapped at Brown.

Tensions between the two were so high by the end of the 1992 campaign that at the national party convention, Brown refused to endorse Clinton, had himself nominated on the floor and delivered a 20-minute speech in which he made no mention of Clinton.

And, just last year,Clinton backed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D)'s candidacy against Brown for the gubernatorial nod. (Newsom later dropped his bid.)

Given the history between the two, it's a pretty safe bet that Clinton won't swoop in to correct the record on Brown's behalf.

"I'd be very surprised if the Clintons did anything to come to his aid," said longtime California GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which offers analysis of state politics.

Hoffenblum said that Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, "was anything but your classic liberal" during his years as chief executive, but that the fact that many voters don't remember his past tenure in office is working against him.

"Young people don't really remember what kind of governor Jerry Brown was," Hoffenblum said. "What Whitman has attempted to do is turn this into a referendum on a tax-and-spend Democrat."

Without Clinton coming to his defense, those charges could be effective, Hoffenblum added.

Brown spokesperson Sterling Clifford said that the "the bottom line is that Meg Whitman is running an ad based on a 20-year old false CNN report. The ad, like her others is false, and Whitman should pull it down."

But the Whitman camp has stated that the ad is staying up and that they're standing by its claims.

"Jerry Brown is not only at war with the truth about his record of opposing tax cuts, opposing Prop. 13 and turning a surplus into a billion-dollar deficit, now he's attacking President Clinton," said Whitman spokesperson Andrea Jones Rivera. "The reason FactCheck.Org reported that Clinton's criticisms of Jerry Brown still remain 'valid' is because Clinton was telling the truth."

Meanwhile, Brown has to contend not only with the ad's claims on his record but also with the perception that he's at odds with Clinton, who remains quite popular in the Golden State, especially among Latino voters. (Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton won the state 51 percent to 43 percent over then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.)

"That evil cackling sound you hear is [Whitman chief strategist] Mike Murphy celebrating the success of the crude and cynical trap he set," said one longtime California Democratic strategist.

The strategist added that Brown's reaction to the Whitman ad was "clever, but strategically idiotic -- it represents everything insiders simultaneously love and fear about his campaign skills and instincts."

By Felicia Sonmez  | September 13, 2010; 3:49 PM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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