Damage Control: Meg Whitman and the Latino Vote

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And when the candidates were asked directly about Diaz, things got really heated. First, Whitman attempted to appeal to the audience with candidness.

"Here's the real story of what happened," she said. "We hired Nicky because she had all the appropriate documents. We went through a hiring agency and, in June of 2009, she came to me and said that she was here illegally and did not have the appropriate documents. I made the hardest decision I had to make in my life and it was to let her go. And my lawyer said there's not much you can do for Nicky. She forged documents. She was here illegally. ... So, it broke my heart.

"But you know the real tragedy here is Nicky," she said. "After Nov. 2, nobody is going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz. And Jerry, you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions."

Then, Jerry Brown accused Whitman of not taking responsibility for her own actions.

"This is incredible, when you try to evade responsibility," Brown shot back, raising his voice. "You're going around the state saying employers must be accountable for hiring unlawful people; that there ought to be raids on businesses. ... You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the Left, blamed the unions; but you don't take accountability. And you can't be a leader, unless you're willing to stand on your own two feet and say, 'Yep, I made a mistake.'"

Next, Whitman tried to directly rebut this accusation.

"You know what? I took accountability," she barked back, breaking her usual calm. "We hired someone who I thought was here legally. She was not. We had to, unfortunately, let her go. And what would you have had me do? Would you have had me call the attorney general's office to have her deported? What would you have had me do other than exactly what I did? My husband and I played by the rules. And the fact that your campaign, two weeks ago, was talking about this issue; the fact that you are joined at the hip with Gloria Allred; it was a political stunt. You should be ashamed and embarrassed."

In the end, the debate was like most others, in that the candidates were both uncompromising in their support of their own side of the story.

Brown argued that Whitman's personal history with Nicky Diaz makes her a hypocrite. And Whitman argued that Brown was behind Nicky Diaz's untimely emergence, which makes him both selfish and heartless.

And the jury is still out on which side Latino voters will choose to believe.

"It's certainly not the nail in the coffin for her campaign," Toeplitz says. "We still have four weeks left until Election Day. She can recover from this. Polls show a tight race. Does it help her pitch with Hispanic voters, though? Not really."

One thing is for sure, at least. As the moderator informed both gubernatorial candidates before their closing statements Saturday, "Hispanic voters are listening."

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