SACRAMENTO (AP) – The figure who has been unwittingly cast as the villain in California’s race for governor is finally getting a chance to fire back in a joint appearance with the two candidates hoping to replace him.

Tuesday’s conversation between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, GOP candidate Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown, moderated by “Today” show host Matt Lauer, could be one of the most intriguing events of California’s campaign season.

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The unusual gathering of the current governor, a former governor and a would-be governor is part of first lady Maria Shriver’s annual women’s conference and comes just a week before Election Day.

Whitman, the billionaire former eBay chief executive, is running as a political outsider—just like Schwarzenegger did during the 2003 gubernatorial recall election.

Brown has sought to capitalize on the similarities between the two as a way to illustrate that Whitman would bring more of the same “failed leadership,” even running a television ad that shows Whitman repeating many of the same phrases Schwarzenegger has used.

In response, Schwarzenegger joked that he delivered his lines better, but Whitman isn’t laughing. She has repeatedly tried to distance herself from Schwarzenegger and has frequently criticized the former action hero for what she perceives as a lack of leadership.

After several years of budget gridlock, multibillion-dollar deficits and a battered economy, Schwarzenegger’s popularity with Californians has fallen to about 28 percent, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

As attorney general for the past four years, Brown has enjoyed a relatively genial relationship with the governor, teaming up with him to defend California’s landmark global warming law in federal court and supporting Schwarzenegger’s budget-reform efforts.

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Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has frequently been at odds with members of his own party, has remained mostly mum on the race to replace him, only occasionally hitting back at candidate claims he sees as egregious.

He recently weighed in via Twitter in response to a follower’s question about Whitman’s proposal to protect some public safety workers’ pensions while dramatically cutting the pensions of other public workers: “It’s appalling when anyone sells out,” the governor said in his Twitter posting.

His office also has said Whitman will have a difficult time following through on her proposal to eliminate 33,000 state workers. Schwarzenegger has found scaling back the work force exceedingly difficult, partly because the governor has so little authority over large swaths of the state payroll.

Whitman also has campaigned on a plan to cut at least $15 billion in waste, partly through reviving Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review. But the governor has acknowledged that much of the waste, fraud and abuse he had hoped to eliminate wasn’t there.

The first-time candidate also has sought to draw contrasts between her background and Schwarzenegger’s, saying he dabbled in investments while she ran companies. She repeated a line from her latest television ad at a campaign stop in Westlake Village on Monday.

“I am not a career politician. I am not a Hollywood star … I come from Silicon Valley, where we figure out how to solve problems, where we don’t take no for an answer, where we don’t get bogged down by the status quo,” she said.

Whitman can only distance herself so much from the Republican governor, though, because many of her top campaign officials have worked for or advised Schwarzenegger. That includes campaign chairman and former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was one of Schwarzenegger’s most important political mentors.

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Tuesday’s event also will feature a protest rally by the California Nurses Association outside the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.

The union is a vocal critic of Whitman’s campaign and at times, of Schwarzenegger. Nurses infamously interrupted Schwarzenegger’s speech to Shriver’s women’s conference in 2004, unfurling a protest banner that prompted the governor to say special interests did not like him “because I’m always kicking their butts.”

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