The race between Rep. Dan Lungren and Dr. Ami Bera is far from over, but the doctor-challenger missed his one good shot at decking the incumbent as the candidates met in their first and likely only debate on Tuesday.
Lungren, who turned 66 over weekend, has been in office off and mostly on since 1978, when he won his first congressional race while living in Long Beach. He spent eight years as California attorney general, lost his run for governor in 1998, and returned to Congress in 2005, this time from the Sacramento region.
In short, he has a record. Democrats in California have fat books detailing every stand he has taken. But Bera got through the entire hour-long debate, held at News10, which co-sponsored the event with Capital Public Radio and The Bee, without ever directly mentioning basic facts about Lungren.
A recent Field Poll showed that a mere 17 percent of likely voters think Congress is doing a fine job. Most of the rest of us think it has done an awful job. Yet Bera never made clear that Lungren started serving in Congress 33 years ago.
In a state where seven in 10 voters support abortion rights, Bera never got across clearly that Lungren opposes abortion rights. Perhaps more than any other issue, Lungren's stand on abortion was his downfall when he lost his gubernatorial race in 1998 to Gray Davis.
Questioners John Myers of News10, Marianne Russ of Capital Public Radio and The Bee's Dan Smith didn't ask a direct abortion question, although Smith did question Lungren about his co-sponsorship of legislation with Rep. Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican who blunderously talked about "legitimate rape." That could have been an opening for Bera. But there were others.
Each candidate was given a chance to ask the other a question. Both of them squandered the opportunity.
Bera picked at Lungren for taking a state pension of about $50,000 a year, while also taking a congressional salary. In the scheme of Lungren's career, that's penny ante stuff, and hardly a reason for voters to turn out Lungren.
Lungren used his opportunity recall a secondhand conversation two years ago in which Bera supposedly said he would not engage in negative campaigning. Lungren can't possibly be surprised that a challenger says mean and nasty things about him.
Bera did get in his jabs. But he hardly bloodied the incumbent, even when Lungren suggested that climate change might not be caused by humans. Lungren added that efforts to combat it could damage the coal industry this in environmentally aware California where former Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger pushed utilities to wean themselves off coal.
In response to one of Bera's points, Lungren said he believes people ought to be able to invest some of their Social Security on their own prompting Bera to point how terrible that option would have been if it had been in place during the crash of 2008.
They tangled over Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. Bera repeatedly pointed out over and over again that he is a physician.
That's a strength. People like doctors, especially ones who like Bera volunteer at free clinics, something he pointed out more than once.
Lungren follows the Republican Party view that Obamacare ought to be repealed. Bera, a former UC Davis Medical School professor and associate dean of admissions, clearly understands health care in a more nuanced way. He doesn't think Obamacare does enough to control costs and will permit insurance companies to continue to suck money out of the system.
But Bera could have done more.
In 1994, Lungren was the clear front-runner to win re-election for attorney general over then Assemblyman Tom Umberg, a Democrat from Orange County. With nothing to lose, Umberg challenged Lungren to 16 debates. Shockingly, Lungren agreed. They traveled the state offering the Tom and Dan show to talk radio hosts and other forums, although they ended it after about a dozen of them, probably because Umberg was getting under Lungren's skin.
When Lungren ran for governor in 1998, he and Davis debated six times.
Umberg and Davis proved that they could poke at Lungren until he got angry, started sweating and raised his voice.
In 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle described a "snarling, angry" tone that slips into Lungren's debating style. The Chronicle was being kind.
Umberg and Garry South, who managed Davis' candidacy, would not discuss the Bera-Lungren campaign. But Bera clearly didn't study Umberg or Davis tapes to get an understanding about how to goad Lungren.
The Lungren-Bera race has been nationalized. Democrats cannot win control of the House without beating Lungren.
Republican and Democratic-backed super PACs are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads, depicting the two candidates as caricatures. Bera would slash Medicare for old and infirm people. Lungren is mocked for being in the pocket of Big Oil and Wall Street. It will get worse.
In fact, Lungren and Bera are thoughtful men who offer different world views. The debate, which will air today on News10 at 9 a.m. and on Capital Public Radio at 10 a.m., allowed them to show that side.
But Bera missed an opportunity. Lungren emerged without many bruises.
This column was modified from the original to correct Dr. Ami Bera's former title at the UC Davis Medical School.