Dan Walters

Dan Walters: No wounds inflicted by California Senate debate

Barbara Boxer’s decision to retire has inspired 34 men and women to seek her U.S. Senate seat this year.

The two with the most votes on June 7 will face each other in November, in what may be the first major statewide test for the top-two primary system.

Mathematically, that means there are more than 500 potential November matchups – but only one matters.

Attorney General Kamala Harris will be one of the two finalists, most likely leading the parade. She has the name, the office, the money and the backing of the state Democratic Party.

The question is which of the other 33 hopefuls will emerge from the pack six weeks hence, a question that remains unanswered after Harris and the four others who register in the polls took part in a “debate” Monday night in Stockton.

As the quotation marks imply, it really wasn’t a debate. It was more like a joint press conference as Harris and the four others responded to questions posed by two journalists with very, very little verbal conflict, or even interaction.

Harris’ aides boasted afterward that she won because no one laid a rhetorical glove on her. And that’s quite true, as far as it goes. But the “debate” – with those pesky quotation marks again – wasn’t about Harris; everyone knows she is going to make the runoff.

It’s was mostly about fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman who runs a surprisingly close second to Harris in the most recent polling.

She should have been the target for both Harris and the three Republicans – Harris because Sanchez represents her only realistic threat, and the Republicans because one of them must best Sanchez on June 7 to make the runoff.

Harris, however, was her characteristically bland, risk-averse self, repeating her party’s oh-so-predictable, politically correct bromides – gun control, abortion rights, immigration reform, higher minimum wages, paid family leave, etc.

Meanwhile, Harris passed up opportunities to ding Sanchez, whose freewheeling style provides plenty of ammunition. “I just have so much to say because I am the one with experience,” Sanchez said as she repeatedly ran over the allotted time in her responses.

The closest Harris came to attacking Sanchez was expressing support for American Muslims, which indirectly alluded to Sanchez’s suggestion that a large percentage of Muslims – in other countries, she now says – support a caliphate that threatens America.

Harris said, “we cannot afford to tolerate this anti-Muslim rhetoric that is marginalizing our Muslim American brothers and sisters.”

Nor did the three Republicans – former state party chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim and gadfly Ron Unz – go after Sanchez, as practical politics would seem to dictate.

Monday night’s real winner, therefore, was Sanchez, because nothing happened that would threaten her No. 2 position. And that means the real loser was Harris, because Sanchez, as mentioned earlier, is the only other candidate who could pose a threat in November by drawing Republican and independent voters, as well as support from her fellow Latinos.

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