ANAHEIM -- Republican Neel Kashkari tore into rival Tim Donnelly on Thursday, accusing him of offending minorities and alienating prominent Republicans while mentioning his criminal record in the only scheduled debate between the two candidates for governor.
Donnelly, relishing a large lead in public opinion polls and the support of a raucous crowd, brushed Kashkari off, occasionally chuckling.
They only attack you when youre the front-runner, he said during the 90-minute debate, hosted live at the Ayres Hotel Anaheim by The John and Ken Show, a conservative program on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.
The debate comes at a critical time in the race, with Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, laboring to gain ground on Donnelly, a state assemblyman from Twin Peaks. Kashkari moved Thursday to capitalize on recent controversies that have led prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Pete Wilson, to publicly rebuke Donnelly. Among those controversies are Donnellys comments tying Kashkari to Islamic law and Donnellys vote in the Assembly against banning the sale of Confederate flags in state gift shops.
The reason that so many people have come out and endorsed me is partly because they like me, but its partly because they really worry about the Republican Party, and Tim, to be direct, in the last few months, in the last few months youve managed to denigrate Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Kashkari said. Thats true.
The audience, full of Donnelly supporters who lined up hours early for a seat, jeered Kashkari. One man yelled at him, Go home!
Donnelly, a tea party favorite and the more experienced orator, challenged Kashkari to explain his vote for president in 2008, perhaps Kashkaris biggest liability with Republican voters.
I just have a very simple question, Donnelly said. Whyd you vote for Barack Obama?
Kashkari said Obama was getting better economic advice in the financial crisis than the Republican nominee, John McCain. He supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the presidential race in 2012, and he noted Romney is supporting him.
He didnt endorse you, Tim, Kashkari said. Mitt Romney endorsed me for governor, and Im proud of that.
The candidates spent much of the debate repeating common themes of their campaigns, assailing the state of education policy and taxes in California, and promising to cancel the $68 billion high-speed rail project.
Neither Donnelly nor Kashkari is likely to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat, and Brown has all but ignored the two candidates. Hosts of The John and Ken Show said Brown did not respond to a request to join the debate Thursday. In his place they dressed a skeleton in a shirt and tie, affixing bushy eyebrows and a Jerry name tag.
The skeleton remained at the side of co-hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou for the duration of the debate, the production of which was unusually free-wheeling for a gubernatorial contest. There was no ticketing, and a fire marshal arrived mid-debate to order people standing at the back of the room to leave.
Brown, in an interview with The Sacramento Bees editorial board Thursday, said he has no preference which Republican challenger emerges from the primary to face him in November. He said of the debate, Ive talked to John and Ken and what I found is I could be in the middle of making a very impressive point and they turn down my volume and continue to talk.
Brown said, As long as those are the rules, I dont think I am going to play that game.
The governor is all but certain to finish first in the primary election. The race for second place is viewed by many Republicans as a significant measure of the direction of the party in California. The conservative California Republican Assembly has endorsed Donnelly, and many rank-and-file conservatives adore him.
But many members of the partys political and professional classes fear Donnelly could damage the GOPs effort to attract independent voters and minorities if he finishes first among Republicans and advances to a runoff against Brown in the fall.
On Thursday, Wilson became the latest Republican to publicly rebuke Donnelly, saying his theatrics and personal controversies would drag down other Republicans on the November ballot.
Keeping public focus on the real and important issues facing California will require a candidate who does not have to defend Tim Donnellys bizarre votes and statements or his irresponsible personal behavior, Wilson said in a letter first published on the conservative blog FlashReport.org. With Tim Donnelly on the ballot, it would be a losing campaign, risking injury to our party and our state, and to other Republican candidates who deserve to win.
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said Donnelly is no longer a viable option for California voters, and the Lincoln Club of Orange County approved a vote of no confidence in Donnelly.
Wilson said in an interview that he was disturbed by Donnellys past criminal cases. Donnelly has blamed a larceny case in Michigan in 1985 on a drunken prank. The assemblyman more recently pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors after carrying a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012.
Donnelly, a former member of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, was asked by the debates hosts Thursday about Kashkaris endorsements from prominent Republicans.
When was the last time they won anything of any significance? he said.
Accusing some Republican politicians of being out of touch with voters, Donnelly said, I think we need to bring a lot more country into the country club.
Kashkari once considered Donnellys candidacy to be so little of a threat that he avoided acknowledging him. Now behind, he went after him at every opportunity.
Asked a question about immigration, Kashkari lamented politicians who fail to enforce the rule of law, before extending the argument to politicians who dont think the laws apply to them.
How many elected officials have arrest records, including my opponent? he said.
Kashkari criticized Donnelly for legislation Donnelly introduced to expand gun owners access to concealed carry permits. Kashkari, who is less stridently opposed to gun control than Donnelly, said he objected to the legislation because permitting would be administered not by counties but by the Department of Justice.
Donnelly took a sip of an energy drink and scoffed, Are you calling me weak on the Second Amendment?
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed.