If you read the newspapers or the state’s political bloggers, you might think that Jerry Brown’s demand for a debate with the two GOP gubernatorial contenders was a strategic masterstroke.

The verdict was nearly unanimous. The LA Times and Contra Costa Times gave Brown’s demand, made during a high-profile speech last weekend to the California Democratic Party convention, favorable coverage. Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle gave Brown an award for “Best headline-grab,” arguing that the once and perhaps future governor “tossed off a savvy political punch and dominated the news cycle, while delighting his base.” And the journalistic wise men at Calbuzz scored it “a shrewd tactical win-win” for Brown.

This was an honest-to-goodness consensus: Brown had fired up Democrats at the convention, won the news cycle, and helped buck up underdog Steve Poizner, who could do more damage to Brown’s likely general election opponent, Meg Whitman. Brown himself seems to agree. His campaign has spent the week reviving the demand, and trying to make an issue of Meg Whitman’s quick refusal to accept the challenge.
Just for fun, let’s lob a contrarian grenade into the journalist-Brown love nest.

Brown’s debate demand is a significant mistake, in two ways.

1. Brown’s demand was an enormous missed opportunity.

With so many TV and print reporters at the convention, Brown had a great opportunity to convey a message to voters about what his priorities would be as governor. Ideally, he should have made that message about jobs.

Instead, by putting the debate demand in the speech, he made his message of the weekend all about tactics, debates and the horse race. That sort of thing delights reporters. But does the public care?
Every public and private poll I see shows that voters are concerned about the economy and budget cuts, not about when gubernatorial debates occur. Brown, to his credit, said thoughtful things about both subjects in the speech. But he didn’t fashion those thoughts into a clear and new proposal on jobs or the budget that might have made headlines.

Why does this matter? Because when you’re running against a billionaire, you must take advantage of every chance you have to drive a message. And Brown missed this chance.

Last weekend was a reminder that Brown’s trouble in the polls is not merely a product of Whitman’s money. His central problem is that he doesn’t have a clear message—specifically, a coherent vision for what he would do as governor in the next four years. If he doesn’t develop a message fast, Republicans will do it for him.

2. Attacking Whitman for not debating plays into her hands.

Brown, incredibly, seems to be making the same strategic mistake that Steve Poizner’s campaign has made: harping relentlessly on Whitman for failing to debate and to answer tough questions.

Voters don’t really care about such things (Whitman made huge gains in the polls during the months Poizner made such attacks). And, as I’ve pointed out before, such attacks help Whitman by lowering expectations for her.

If you recall, Poizner’s campaign spent months suggesting Whitman was incapable of debating or answering tough question. So when Whitman finally debated Poizner and managed not to vomit all over herself, her thoroughly mediocre performance was seen as a triumph.

Brown is setting up the same dynamic. He should change course.

How? Brown’s campaign to this point has been largely about two things: strategy (mainly that he’s taking his time to get his campaign together) and about his personal history. Brown is a great story, and Californians are interested.

But we’re not as interested in Brown as we are in ourselves – and in our economic futures. Brown needs to stop talking about debates and his life and his career — and start talking about what he plans to do for Californians.