Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari, the leading Republicans vying for the chance to challenge Gov. Jerry Brown in the fall, clashed Thursday in a scrappy debate that highlighted the split between the tea party and establishment factions of the state GOP.
The Anaheim debate, aired live during the evening rush hour on KFI-AM (640) radio, was the pair's first and perhaps only faceoff before the June 3 primary and reflected national fissures in the Republican Party.
Kashkari, a former banker and U.S. Treasury official, was constantly on the attack, portraying Donnelly, a state assemblyman from San Bernardino County, as incapable of expanding the party's appeal in a strongly Democratic state.
Kashkari said Republican luminaries such as Mitt Romney and Pete Wilson were rallying around him not just because they like him, but also "because they really worry about the Republican Party.
"Tim, to be direct, in the last few months… you've managed to denigrate Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus," he said.
The audience, full of Donnelly supporters, erupted in boos, with one man yelling, "Go home!"
Kashkari was alluding to Donnelly's statements while a leader of the Minuteman volunteer border patrol group, his lone vote against a bill to ban the sale of the Confederate flag on state property, his comparison of President Obama's gun policy to Adolf Hitler's and his accusation that Kashkari, a Hindu, supported fundamentalist Islamic law.
Donnelly, the front-runner among GOP candidates, appeared to revel in the controversy.
"To quote a friend of mine, they don't kick a dead dog," Donnelly said, drawing cheers. "They only attack you when you're the front-runner and you're a threat. And the only colors that matter to me are red, white and blue, because those are the colors of freedom."
Donnelly said he didn't mind that the establishment lined up for his main rival. "You know what?" he said. "I think we need to bring a lot more country into the country club."
That dynamic drove the 95-minute debate, moderated by Ken Chiampou and John Kobylt, conservative KFI talk radio hosts. Their large number of listeners made this the GOP candidates' biggest audience.
About 200 people crammed into a stuffy hotel dining room in the heart of Republican Orange County to see the debate. The room grew so crowded that the fire marshal appeared and ordered some to leave.
The hosts, known for their attention-grabbing antics, had invited Brown, who didn't attend, so they had a skeleton clad in a dress shirt and tie stand in for him.
Polls have found Brown a heavy favorite for reelection to an historic fourth term. Both Republicans have struggled to raise even a small fraction of the campaign money banked by Brown, who is running largely on the state's improved financial health.
Kashkari, a Laguna Beach millionaire and the son of immigrants from India, largely glossed over his background, while Donnelly described moving to this state from Michigan, "living the California dream" until the government regulated him out of business.
"I want my state back. I want my freedom back, and I want my sons to have the same opportunity to live the California dream without having to leave the state of California to do it," he said.
The first third of the debate, when the candidates were questioned by the moderators, was largely civil. Kashkari repeatedly spoke of the need to expand the party while Donnelly highlighted causes dear to conservatives, such as opposition to the national Common Core school curriculum.
But the civility soon evaporated.
Donnelly bore in on Kashkari's vote for President Obama in 2008, a tough sell to Republican voters.
Kashkari mentioned Donnelly's arrest for trying to take a loaded gun through airport security. "How many elected officials have arrest records — including my opponent?" he said.
Kashkari accused Donnelly of trying to weaken gun laws, prompting the lawmaker, an ardent gun-rights advocate who at one point recited the 2nd Amendment, to ask incredulously, "Are you calling me weak on the 2nd Amendment?"
One of the most heated exchanges came over Donnelly's charge in recent weeks that Kashkari had advanced the cause of sharia law by speaking at a 2008 conference about Islamic banking sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department and Harvard University's Islamic Finance Project.
Kashkari, who was an assistant Treasury secretary in 2008, said the goal was to educate U.S. policymakers who regulate banks that want to sell financial products in the Middle East.
"It had absolutely nothing to do with bringing Islamic law to America," Kashkari said.
"And I'll tell you the truth, folks: The idea that President George W. Bush, the man who worked so hard to make us safe, the idea that his administration would try to bring Islamic law to America is outrageous," Kashkari continued. "It's offensive, and you should be ashamed of yourself, Tim."
The two candidates interrupted one another, each trying to drown the other out.
"You think that George Bush wants to bring Islamic law to America?" Kashkari said. "The spaceship called, Tim. They want you to join them."
Donnelly used the moment to repeatedly mention Kashkari's role leading the $700-billion Wall Street bailout, which has proved deeply unpopular with voters.
"Given that this is something that you did while you were at the Department of Treasury," Donnelly responded, "and you were helping to bail out Wall Street, I think you owe the people an answer for what they meant when they said they wanted to make us compliant to sharia."
The back and forth continued, but Kobylt tired of it.