Spectacular bit of political theater yesterday in California, if you like that sorta thing. And a certain big name TV fella played the fool.

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman attended the Maria Shriver-organized 2010 Women’s Conference yesterday. The candidates took to a stage, sitting beside Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for a discussion moderated by NBC’s Today Show host Matt Lauer. In his Capitol Notes blog, John Meyers—of NPR-affiliate KQED—captured the tone of the conversation:

…it seemed as though the setting — the 2010 Women’s Conference — and the overall mood of the event — life empowering and emotional — were going to force the candidates to spend the entire time praising their families and friends.

“I am my mother’s daughter,” said Whitman in answering a question about her biggest life influences. To which Brown invoked both his late mother and his wife when it was his turn.

But Lauer had a zinger of a question waiting for the two at the end, calling the campaign between the two candidates “a bloodbath” for its bitter accusations and sharp attacks.

Lauer asked a “where is the love?” question that caught Whitman—who has been campaigning heavily negative against Brown—off-guard: Would both candidates pull their negative ads in the week leading up to the election? The responses show Whitman was the less adept on her feet. From the AP report:

Brown, the Democrat, said he would agree to air only an ad in which he talks directly to the camera about his plans to lead the state — if Whitman, the Republican, agreed to do the same.

“Let’s be clear, if she takes her negative ads down … I’ll take mine off, no question. We’ll do it together,” he said to loud applause.

Whitman demurred.

“Here’s what I’ll do: I will take down any ads that could even remotely be construed as a personal attack. But I don’t think we can take down the ads that talk about where Governor Brown stands on the issues,” she said.

Whitman said she needs to tell Californians about Brown’s record as governor from 1975 to 1983 — and she then proceeded to attack it.

“People need to know where I stand. And also Jerry Brown has been in politics for 40 years and there’s a long track record there. And I want to make sure that people really understand what’s going on here. And I’m not doing it in a mean-spirited way,” she said.

Her answer prompted loud boos from the largely female audience at first lady Maria Shriver’s annual women’s conference. At times, the audience response drowned out the candidates, who were being questioned by “Today” show host Matt Lauer about the negative tone of the race.

Naturally, Whitman has copped flak for her response; it was a political opportunity wasted. But others—wisely—have been quick to level their scopes at Lauer for asking the question in the first place.

Steven Harmon of Political Blotter wrote:

It was a cheap trick by Matt Lauer, a pander move for the celebrity anchor of NBC’s Today Show….

… It was an unfair question, really, if you understand the reality of politics and the flow of this particular campaign. And it could be seen as an ambush on Whitman, who has run an exceptionally negative campaign and couldn’t be expected to relinquish the last hope she has, which is to somehow make Brown less appealing than her.

The Atlantic’s Joshua Green was more scathing:

This is reprehensible behavior and should be universally condemned—Lauer’s, I mean. Does anyone believe his stunt was motivated by anything other than Olympian self-regard? Negative ads serve a useful purpose. They draw distinctions that help people who don’t spend all day watching PBS and poring over policy papers make decisions about who to vote for. Yes, yes, some are crass. So what? Voters are grown up enough to punish candidates who overdo it. If you can’t stand the televised assault, there’s always Netflix…. If I were Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, I’d join hands across the great partisan divide, pool my vast resources, and cut a really nasty ad attacking Matt Lauer.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.