As a fellow Californian, I can certainly understand T.A. Frank’s disgust with last night’s California gubernatorial debate, which featured a continued preoccupation with two recent candidate “gaffes” (Meg Whitman’s relations with a Latina domestic worker who was illegally in the country, and an overheard comment by a Brown campaign staffer, in his boss’ presence, calling Whitman a “whore”). Yes, California state government is a mess, and no, neither candidate has been terribly forthcoming about how to deal with the state’s chronic and massive fiscal problems.

Having said that, I can’t personally recall a candidate debate, or for that matter a gubernatorial campaign, that involved two major-party candidates offering detailed tough-love prescriptions for resolving a budget stalemate based not only on partisan and ideological gridlock, but on the general unwillingness of voters to acknowledge and make hard choices. There is abundant evidence that a significant majority of Californians don’t want to hear that a solution to the budget crisis will require cuts in popular programs and/or increased taxes. Maybe Brown and Whitman are both crazy to want the job, but you can’t really expect either of them to sacrifice his or her campaign to a public education effort on the realities of the California budget.

Moreover, the focus on the two gaffes isn’t a completely meaningless exercise. Both “issues” point to real voter concerns, however indirectly. Whitman has been conducting a year-long tightrope walk on the subject of illegal immigration, talking tough but also managing to avoid identification with the Arizona law that is wildly popular among her conservative voter base, despite considerable provocation from primary opponent Steve Poizner. How she did and didn’t deal with an undocumented worker in her employ for nine years is germane to the serious issue of employer responsibility for illegal immigration. It’s also worth noting that Meg’s entire campaign is based on her credentials as a superstar entrepreneur and manager; her handling of her own household staff isn’t entirely irrelevant to that case, and the brouhaha certainly reinforces Democratic claims that she’s a self-interested billionaire who didn’t give a damn about her employees at eBay. Conversely, Brown’s handling of the controversy is perilous for reasons beyond the suspicion that his campaign cooked it up. He’s walking his own tightrope in trying to boost his standing among Latino voters (who have been relatively friendly to Whitman, and certainly not fired up to defeat her) without appearing to endorse scofflaw behavior.

The “whore” controversy, stupid as it may seem, represents a whole host of semi-subliminal issues. The subtext of the Brown staffer’s slur was Whitman’s decision to exempt police officers from one of her few specific proposals for reducing debt and spending, the elimination of defined benefit pensions for public employees. If she did that to secure a key endorsement, that’s worth knowing. The claim also undercuts another key Whitman talking point, her effort to make her unprecedented personal spending on her campaign a badge of her independence from interest groups, in sharp contrast to the union-dependent Brown. On her own part, the Republican candidate is frantically trying to turn this into a gender issue, for the very good reason that she’s a pro-choice woman fighting a pro-Democratic gender gap. She’s certainly not the first female candidate to seek to benefit from perceptions of puerile or insensitive indicators of chauvinism by a male opponent.

So yes, Brown and Whitman blew a lot of smoke in last night debate, but there’s fire at the source. And in any event, frustrating as candidate debates may be these days, anything that draws them a few inches away from the focus-group-tested messages of their ads probably represents a small step in the right direction.

UPDATE: Sure enough, the Reid campaign is already out with an ad that blasts Angle for her refusal to support any insurance mandates, using a clip from the debate. It goes to show that, sometimes, the real impact of a debate is not what happens in the heat of battle, but the audio-visual ammunition it provides to make points the debater may have missed.