Whitman had hoped Saturday's debate in the heart of California's Central Valley would showcase her economic credentials and help siphon the support of independent and Hispanic votes away from Democrat Jerry Brown.
Instead, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay found herself on the defensive and seeking to regain momentum with those voters after a tumultuous week in which she was forced to explain how she had an illegal immigrant housekeeper on the payroll for nine years and, according to her, didn't know it.
She also is addressing allegations from the housekeeper's attorney that she and her husband should have suspected the worker's status because of a Social Security Administration letter mailed to their home in 2003.
The forced acknowledgment by Whitman and her husband this week that they fired Nicky Diaz Santillan when she confessed to being an illegal immigrant in June 2009 has thrown off Whitman's controlled campaign messages about reviving the economy, controlling state spending and reforming education.
The forum at California State University, Fresno was hosted by Spanish-language network Univision and was the first California gubernatorial debate broadcast in Spanish.
"The real tragedy here is Nicky. After Nov. 2, no one's going to be watching out for Nicky Diaz," Whitman said, turning to face Brown directly shortly after the start of their second debate. "And Jerry, you know you should be ashamed, you and your surrogates ... put her deportation at risk. You put it out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions."
Brown fired back, saying Whitman was trying to evade responsibility.
"Don't run for governor if you can't stand up on your own two feet and say, 'Hey I made a mistake,'" Brown said in a moment fraught with tension as the two candidates, neck-and-neck in the polls, turned away from the audience and faced each other directly. "You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don't take accountability."
Brown, the state Attorney General, served two terms as governor of California from 1975-83.
The pressure Whitman has been under all week erupted as the candidates took their fourth question of the debate. The exchange came after the candidates faced questions about jobs, public education and the housing crisis.
"So, this is a very sad situation, and the Nicky that I saw on the press conference a few days ago was not the Nicky that I knew for nine years," Whitman said as she began to address the issue that has thrown her campaign off track. "And you (know) what my first clue was? She kept referring to me as Ms. Whitman. And for the 10 years, nine years she worked for me, she called me Meg and I called her Nicky."
Getting control of the controversy and putting it behind her are crucial for Whitman. Support from independents and Latinos is crucial to the campaign of any Republican running in a state in which Democrats hold a 13.4 percentage point edge among registered voters.
Whitman has trained a large share of her campaign account - $119 million of it from her personal fortune - on the Central Valley, which has been hit hard by the recession and is filled with communities where unemployment afflicts a quarter of the population or more.
Hispanics comprise 37 percent of the state's 38.6 million people and are expected to account for about 15 percent of voters in the Nov. 2 election, according to a recent Field Poll.
Many of those voters are relatively new naturalized citizens who don't have any allegiance to a political party, representing a key opportunity for the Republican Party, said Harry Pachon, president of The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released this week showed Brown with only a slight lead over Whitman among Hispanic voters, but the survey was taken before the housekeeper controversy began dominating the race.
Brown and his supporters also are courting Hispanics, who typically vote Democratic.
The state's largest public employee union, the Service Employees International Union, is launching an ad campaign coinciding with Saturday's debate. It aims to keep the housekeeper controversy fresh in the minds of Hispanic voters.
The $5 million Spanish-language media campaign accuses Whitman of saying one thing in her Spanish-language campaign ads and another when she speaks in English.
California's unemployment rate is 12.4 percent, but it is much higher in many areas of the Central Valley, which has been hard hit by the foreclosure crisis and water shortages that have hurt the agriculture industry.