From NBC's Adam Verdugo
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- For the first time during this election cycle, the current governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, shared the same stage with the two candidates vying be his successor -- Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown.
The discussion was emblematic of the nasty campaign in the Golden State, where both candidates have flooded the airwaves with tough ads and personal attacks. NBC’s Matt Lauer emceed the event, which was part of a women's conference hosted by California's First Lady Maria Shriver.
Lauer asked both candidates if they would suspend their negative ads in the final six days of the race.
“Sometimes negativity is in the eye of the beholder,” Brown responded, adding that if his rival was willing to agree to the terms, he would as well.
But Whitman was not so quick to commit. “I will take down any ads that can even be remotely construed as a personal attack,” she said. But she refused to take down commercials depicting “where Governor Brown stands on the issues.”
“It’s okay to have a discussion around the issues,” she said, but “the things that I’ve been called in this campaign – it’s not fair to the voters of California.”
(Earlier this month, a Brown aide was recorded using a sexual slur to describe Whitman in a voice mail message leaked to the press.)
“Should I leave it in the hands of Governor Schwarzenegger?” Lauer offered, suggesting that the outgoing governor should serve as a referee. But Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has declined to endorse in the race, demurred.
A recent Suffolk University poll showed Brown leading Whitman 50 percent to 42 percent.
Before the gubernatorial candidates took the stage, Lauer spoke with Schwarzenegger alone. He said that, beside the decision to marry Maria Shriver, his decision to run for governor was the best decision he ever made.
What was the Governor’s advice to his successor?: “It can’t always go your way.”
He said politics have been too polarizing as of late and that it was much more attractive for candidates to talk about their vision for the future.
Lauer said that beside the fact that one candidate is a Democrat and one candidate is a Republican, little has been said about another obvious difference: their gender. Was there any benefit of having a different gender’s perspective on how to govern California, Lauer asked in front of a mostly female audience.
“Most of my cabinet secretaries are women. My chief-of-staff is a woman,” Schwarzenegger noted. His chief-of-staff, Susan Kennedy, has always been a “go-to” on his staff, he added.
“I would not know how to do this job without her,” he said.
Lauer, noting that the governor didn’t really answer his question, asked a follow-up. But Schwarzenegger again demurred, prompting television cameras to zero in on his wife, who shook her head with a smile.
What does the governor think about his own term in office? Does he think that he left California in a better place than when he found it?
Schwarzenegger pointed to the state's recent redistricting reforms, new open primary system, and pension reform.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the governor's approval rating languishing at just 31 percent.
But Schwarzenegger takes the long view.
“You don’t just think about your administration," he replied. "You think about the long term.”
Msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed.