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Gloria Allred, the housekeeper’s attorney, is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates. Ms. Whitman told reporters after the debate the controversy is a sideshow from the issues Californians want to focus on, such as jobs and education.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Whitman had several lengthy exchanges over high-profile immigration issues, including whether illegal immigrants already in the country should be able to seek citizenship and whether the government should crack down on employers who hire illegal workers. They also sparred over the DREAM Act, which would let U.S. high school graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children become legal residents after spending two years in college or the military.

“We need a better e-verify system, three strikes and you’re out, you get fined, you lose your business license,” Ms. Whitman said about her belief that employers need to be targeted. “If we do not hold employers accountable, we will never get our arms around this very challenging problem,”

Brown pounced.

“Ms. Whitman obviously didn’t crack down on herself,” he said. “This is a question of talking out of both sides of her mouth.”

The candidates also faced a question about the DREAM Act from a woman who said she was a senior at the university and was an illegal immigrant. Without a pathway to citizenship, she won’t be able to work legally after graduation, even though she was at the top of her class when she graduated from a California high school. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a state DREAM Act bill just days ago.

Mr. Brown said he would sign the law if it came to him as governor. Ms. Whitman opposes it.

“She wants to kick you out of the school because you are not documented, and that is wrong — morally and humanly,” he told the woman.

Ms. Whitman said California citizens should have first crack at California’s overcrowded colleges, which are under financial strain because of budget cuts.

“This is a very tough situation, but I don’t think it’s fair to the people who are here in California legally,” she said. “I don’t think we can carve out a group of illegal immigrants and get them a path to citizenship when we haven’t sorted out control of our borders and getting our arms around illegal immigration.”

Ms. Whitman reiterated her opposition to a path to citizenship and tried to shift blame for immigration problems to the federal government, saying the first priority should be securing the border with Mexico. Mr. Brown said he would treat all Californians equally “as God’s children.”

“You don’t just bring in semiserfs and say do our dirty work, and then we’re finished with you like an orange and just throw it away. That’s after you’ve squeezed it. That’s not right,” he said.

Ms. Whitman said later that her messages of job creation and improving K-12 schools are resonating with Latino voters, and she’ll continue to focus on that.

“Without jobs, there is no future. Without keeping California’s businesses here, there is no future,” she said. “Every Latino family that I have run into says if we do not fix our education system, there is no way forward, and so I am deeply committed to education.”

Associated Press writers Garance Burke and Samantha Young contributed to this report.