Capitol Alert

U.S. Senate candidates’ styles emerge in first debate

Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez offered contrasting styles Monday in the first televised debate of the U.S. Senate contest, while a trio of Republicans leapt at the chance to participate in a bipartisan skirmish.

The 1 1/2 -hour event was mostly courteous, yet it provided the five candidates their largest audience to date to stake out positions on a range of topics with six weeks to go before the June 7 primary.

Harris, a career prosecutor until her election to the attorney general’s office in 2010, cited her efforts on criminal justice issues and the mortgage crisis. She said most people have little concern about a candidate’s political party, and she called for a national commitment to paid family leave, full-day kindergarten and universal pre-kindergarten.

“If we’re going to improve the economy of this country, we have to improve the status of working families,” Harris said.

Debating in a Central Valley city battered by the recession and still recovering from municipal bankruptcy, Sanchez promoted her humble beginnings, including her reliance on Head Start services as a child and on the federal Pell Grant program as a college student. She called for the program’s expansion and said community college should be free.

Sanchez, a south-state congresswoman for nearly 20 years, said elected officials are too often “detached” from the general public, and by extension their struggles. When she repeatedly went over her allotted time, moderators from KCRA-TV and the San Francisco Chronicle interjected with gentle reminders.

“I just have so much to say because I am the one with experience,” Sanchez said at one point.

Former state Republican Party chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim said they oppose free tuition and advocated cutting overhead costs by unleashing breakthrough technologies. Software developer Ron Unz said he wants to cut tuition at public universities and find the savings by slashing administrative outlays.

While Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat is likely to remain Democratic, given the party’s dominance in statewide races, intrigue centers on whether Harris and Sanchez will compete again in November. California’s primaries allow the top two finishers to advance to a runoff regardless of party.

Harris, the first to launch her campaign early last year, entered the debate leading in every public poll, but the surveys showed a wide-open race, with roughly half of the likely voters still undecided.

She rebuffed calls that she “step aside” from her office’s probe of anti-abortion activist David Daleiden and his Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress. Earlier, she delivered a glancing blow of her own at Sanchez when asked about President Barack Obama’s handling of terrorist threats, saying “we cannot afford to tolerate this anti-Muslim rhetoric that is marginalizing our Muslim American brothers and sisters.”

Sanchez came under criticism last year from immigrant rights groups and others for claiming 5 percent to 20 percent of Muslims want to form a caliphate to disrupt “our way of life.”

Sanchez, without directly addressing Harris, returned fire moments later.

“It seems to me that it’s very easy for people to talk about what is going on with national security without actually having the experience of 20 years of dealing with this,” she said.

Later, asked specifically about her comments about Muslims, Sanchez said she was talking about Muslims worldwide and that “nobody has been able to refute those numbers.”

For their part, Del Beccaro, Sundheim and Unz all ripped into Obama’s handling of foreign policy.

“The Obama administration has been totally wrongheaded in its approach to ISIS,” Unz said. “We should be working with the Russians and the Syrians to destroy ISIS. Instead, the Obama administration has spent years trying to overthrow the secular Syrian government.”

After Harris jumped in last January, her campaign quickly mobilized to give her candidacy an air of inevitability. They rolled out the support of popular elected Democrats, and Democratic Party activists overwhelmingly endorsed Harris at their recent convention.

As she did Monday, Sanchez has sought to draw attention to her experience on foreign affairs and military issues, arguing that the people who know her best – congressional colleagues from across California – believe she would require no on-the-job training.

Still, her stumbles, such as mimicking a cliché Indian war cry, and the remarks that angered some Muslims with the terrorism remarks, have periodically undercut her message.

“When I have been wrong I have apologized for it,” she said.

Harris, by contrast, was questioned about whether her style is too careful. “Fearless yes, reckless no,” she replied.

Unz, who unsuccessfully challenged GOP Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, is a wild-card candidate with unorthodox views. A prolific writer whose collected works, “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” runs nearly 700 pages, the Palo Alto resident in recent years joined with liberal activists in advocating for a higher minimum wage. The trained theoretical physicist made millions as a software developer, and is best known for his voter-approved Proposition 227, the 1998 initiative requiring schools to teach in English.

The other two Republicans in the debate have run traditional, if underfunded, campaigns given the state’s Democratic advantages. Relying on endorsements to help voters assess their stances, Del Beccaro and Sundheim use inexpensive channels like talk radio, social media and the community speaking circuit.

An attorney from Lafayette, Del Beccaro is focusing on conservatives with his plan to overhaul the federal tax code and replace it with a 15.5 percent rate on wages and capital gains. Head of the state party from 2011 to 2013, he signed a pledge not to support a tax increase under any circumstances, and points to endorsements from Rep. Tom McClintock, former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes and Reagan economic adviser Art Laffer.

Sundheim, a Los Altos Hills mediator, was GOP chairman during the 2003 recall election of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Sundheim has targeted moderate Republicans and independent voters with his stances on immigration and social issues. Sundheim does not support deporting the more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.

Instead, he wants to make them eligible for legal status and, pending requirements, a path to citizenship. He also backs same-sex marriage and abortion rights. His views earned him the endorsements of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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