The debate, the first of three, was at turns personal and policy-oriented, as both candidates sought to portray an image of leadership and confidence to the state's voters five weeks before they go to the polls.
Whitman said California has a government it can no longer afford and said it would be a false hope for voters to put Brown back in office, trusting him to fix the state's budget and turn around its economy. She repeatedly charged that he was too cozy with public employee unions, which have campaigned on his behalf.
"It's like putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank," she said. "Nothing will get done."
Brown defended his two previous terms as governor, characterizing himself as fiscally conservative. He said his years as governor, from 1975-83, were marked by fiscal restraint, clashes with state employee unions and robust private-sector job growth.
Brown noted that he was praised by tax-cutting icon Howard Jarvis after he implemented Proposition 13, the landmark voter initiative that cut and capped property taxes. Brown originally opposed the initiative.
"Nobody is tougher with a buck than I am," he said. "Make no mistake about it."
He also sought to draw attention to his decades of experience working in state government, a contrast to Whitman, who is running for public office for the first time. He suggested he would not get "flummoxed by the shark-infested waters of Sacramento."
Tuesday's hourlong debate at the University of California, Davis, touched on a wide range of topics, including immigration, higher education and the effectiveness of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The televised forum was a public coming-out party of sorts for both candidates, who so far have campaigned primarily through television and radio ads and are in a tight race, according to recent public polls. Whitman has spent $119 million of her own money, a record amount, and has raised at least $26 million from outside sources.
For Brown, the debate was a chance to introduce himself to a younger generation of voters who may not be familiar with his first tenure as governor.
Sometimes prone to rambling discussions of policy, Brown remained focused and displayed a passion for trying to revive California's fortunes. He drew laughs from the audience several times with self-deprecating humor about his age, saying he would be a good buy for California if they hired him as governor because it would delay his public pension check. The remark even drew a laugh from Whitman.
Brown, 72, also cracked that he wouldn't be hanging out at bars after work as he did his first time in Sacramento because he is now married.
Whitman, the former eBay chief executive and billionaire, was trying to demonstrate that she has a command of public policy, despite her inexperience. She hued closely to her scripted campaign talking points, at times reciting lists of statistics as she repeatedly tried to steer the conversation back to the economy and state spending that she says is out of control.
Both were attempting to persuade voters that they have a clear plans for lifting California's economy and solving the state's persistent budget problems. They also discussed pensions, immigration, campaign finance reform, global warming, water issues and the death penalty.
Whitman attacked Brown repeatedly for his ties to public employee unions, who have given money to his campaign and run political ads on his behalf. Brown has raised at least $30 million for his campaign so far.
He criticized Whitman's approach of targeted tax cuts to improve the state's economy, including eliminating the capital gains tax, which will benefit only the rich and leave the working class and middle class behind. He said her approach was more of what he described as a failed economic model from the Bush era that would benefit some of the same wealthy individuals who are donating to her campaign.
"This is a little bit like the kettle calling the pot black talking about union contributions," Brown said. "She's raised $25 million ... and I will bet you a majority will get an immediate tax break from her key economic plan, which is to eliminate totally the California capital gains tax."
Both candidates criticized the failure of Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to pass a budget. They have set a record for the longest California has gone without a spending plan since the state started its fiscal year on July 1, unable to bridge a $19 billion deficit.
If elected governor, Brown said he would cut 15 to 20 percent of the governor's office budget and then ask the Legislature and state agencies to do the same.
"We can cut," said Brown, who referred to Schwarzenegger in saying that California doesn't need another outsider with a business background. "They're fooling around with a lot of fat."
Whitman, 54, repeatedly said state government is bloated and needs to be streamlined.
Public employee pensions are among the spiraling costs in state government, and both candidates were asked how they would control them. Whitman repeated her campaign promise that she would raise the retirement age for state employees from 55 to 65, as well as force new state employees into 401(k)-style retirement plans rather than pensions.
Brown has faced questions about the size of his own pension after spending decades in state government.
He joked that Californians would save money if all public employees worked as long as he has. He said he wouldn't start drawing a pension for another four years if elected governor - or eight years if he were to serve two terms.
"I'm the best pension buy California has ever seen," he said, drawing laughs.
Whitman, who has sought to appeal to Hispanic voters, said she continues to oppose giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. She reiterated her position from the GOP primary for tighter border security and said she would crack down on employers that hire illegal workers and work to eliminate sanctuary cities such as San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Brown defended his evolving position on the death penalty, acknowledging he personally does not like capital punishment, but pledged he would faithfully carry out the law.
"The death penalty is a serious issue," Brown said. "We have it, so we've got to make it work. As attorney general, I've defended hundreds and hundreds of death penalty convictions."