California's Democratic state attorney general cemented her front-runner status Monday night in a debate that spanned substantive policy issues between the top five candidates but yielded few zingers or breakthrough moments for voters struggling to sort through a large field.
Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep Loretta Sanchez, a fellow Democrat who is vying for second place in the June primary, distinguished themselves dramatically in style, with Harris maintaining her typically reserved, poised approach and Sanchez delivering a shoot-from-the-hip approach, but differed little when it came to policy. Both backed free community college and expanded Pell grants and said they would strengthen gun laws and loosen federal drug policy on marijuana.
With only six weeks remaining until the primary, the top five candidates vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer met for the first debate of their campaign at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Harris said she wants to bring a rational approach to issues such as drug policy and gun control that doesn't cast them as all-or-nothing choices, though she took liberal positions on those issues.
"It's just pretty simple, reasonable stuff. If somebody has been convicted of a felony that proves them to be a dangerous person, they should not be able to own a gun. If somebody has been found by a court to be mentally ill to the point that they are danger to themselves or other people they should not be able to own or possess a gun," she said.
Republicans Tom Del Beccaro, Duf Sundheim and Ron Unz acknowledge they're hoping to come in second to Harris, as does Sanchez, a firebrand from conservative Orange County who played up her roles as the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. The top two candidates in California's June 7 primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of their party.
"I know the tough votes. They haven't been under the pressure," Sanchez said of her competitors. "I said no to the Iraq war, I said no to the so-called Patriot Act, and I said no to the Wall Street bailout."
The two did part slightly on the issue of foreign policy, where Harris, when pressed, said she supports President Barack Obama's administration, while Sanchez said she has given Obama a piece of her mind on "where he could do more and where he could do better."
The three GOP candidates all sharply differed with Obama on national security, arguing that the U.S. administration has taken a failed approach in the Middle East.
The first open Senate seat in decades was expected to attract outsize attention and a strong field of candidates, but so far has drawn mostly yawns from voters and prompted a low-profile campaign, although there will be 34 candidates on the June 7 ballot. Polls show about half of likely voters remain unengaged in the race and undecided about whom to support.
A Field Poll earlier this month found Harris in the lead with support from 27 percent of likely voters and Sanchez with 14 percent. The three Republicans included in Monday's debate were all within the poll's sampling of error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Del Beccaro used his highest profile opportunity to date to take a few shots at Harris in an effort to present himself as a credible alternative. He criticized her Department of Justice for raids earlier this month against an anti-abortion activist who made undercover videos at Planned Parenthood clinics. Harris later said the raid was justified and she is doing her job as the state's top law enforcement officer.
He cast himself as the only candidate with a free-market approach, noting several times that he wants to reduce reliance on government programs, not expand them.
"They want a government solution to this but government can't solve everything," Del Beccaro said of the other candidates on stage.
Unz, a physicist and entrepreneur who is best known for backing a 1998 initiative to end bilingual education in California, acknowledged he only got into the race to try to draw attention to legislative efforts to derail that education measure. He took several contrary positions during Monday's debate, including support for the state's recently approved $15 an hour minimum wage, serving to highlight how far the largely Democratic state is from the national political debate.
"We have to be honest about something: It's going to be very difficult for any Republican to win the Senate seat in California these days," he said.
Democrats are strongly favored to retain the seat in November. The party controls every statewide office and holds a 2.7 million edge in voter registration.
The major Senate candidates will meet again on May 10, when KPCC sponsors a debate with public radio stations KPBS, KQED and Capital Public Radio in San Diego. The debate will air live on 89.3FM and stream on KPCC.org starting at 7 p.m.
The debate is part of California Counts, an election coverage initiative by the state’s leading public media newsrooms.
This story has been updated.