The first debate in California's sleepy U.S. Senate campaign seemed to present a question: Who has the best chance of securing the second and final spot on the November ballot, alongside Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris? Because Harris ended the evening where she started — firmly still in the driver's seat.
Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats, have the best chance at making it past the state's top-two June 7 primary to face each other in a general election. The Republican hopefuls used Monday's debate to attempt to sully Sanchez's record more than go after Harris, who leads all public opinion polls and had nearly $5 million in the bank at the start of this month.
The Orange County congresswoman was pressed by George "Duf" Sundheim about missing a slew of House Homeland Security Committee meetings in 2015. Moderators kept Sanchez on the defensive, asking about past remarks about native Americans, the Vietnamese and regarding the number of Muslims supporting a strict Islamist state. She adamantly denied she was anti-Muslim and dismissed the comments as being taken "out of context," while also saying no one had refuted her claim.
The only real knock on Harris came from Republican Tom Del Beccaro, who criticized her investigation of an anti-abortion activist while her campaign was drumming up support for Planned Parenthood. Even then, Harris turned that into a platform to express her staunch support for reproductive rights groups, a line that earned her praise from one of them minutes after the debate wrapped.
Sanchez was asked about her "shoot from the hip" style and whether California voters should be worried about sending her to the Senate.
John Diaz, editorial editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, specifically mentioned comments she made after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in December, when Sanchez said 5% to 20% of Muslims worldwide supported the idea of a caliphate – a strict Islamic state. Following those comments, the congresswoman was criticized by immigrant rights group and the Council on Islamic-American Relations.
Harris had gotten in a subtle dig at Sanchez earlier in the debate, saying "anti-Muslim rhetoric" does not belong in any conversation about America's fight against terrorism.
The five candidates on stage at the debate at the University of the Pacific in Stockton provided vastly different viewpoints of President Obama's record on foreign policy and keeping American safe from terrorists attacks.
Sanchez said she has told Obama he was wrong on occasion during her time in Congress. But she didn't offer any precise criticism, except to say that the Obama administration failed to prevent Libya from becoming a breeding ground for extremists. She also took the opportunity to decry those who want more military intervention and to tout her own opposition to the war Iraq.
"I'll use everything before we have to go to war with anybody," she said.
As Sanchez repeatedly spoke of her experience on the House Homeland Security and Armed Services committees, saying it set her apart from her rivals, Sundheim cited some figures from a Los Angeles Times story about the congresswoman's sagging attendance record at Homeland Security hearings.
She defended herself by saying the committee meets at the same time as the Armed Services committee, where she has taken on more duties while the ranking member faces health challenges and at the request of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
Two of the Republicans, Del Beccaro and Sundheim, sounded similar themes of criticism. Sundheim called for a blend of economic, military and political power.
Del Beccaro hewed more to the right, suggesting that the U.S. should have done more to intervene in Iraq and Syria to ensure that the Islamic State could not expand its territory and influence in the Middle East. He also suggested words also matter when discussing how to combat terrorism.
"If they are Islamic, or Islamic terrorists, then we should call them that," he said.
Perhaps the man who proved most unpredictable on the Senate debate stage was Silicon Valley software developer Ron Unz, the newest entrant in the race. While he has an unusual political résumé, he kept up that unusual bent in the 90 minute televised event.
Unz described the Iraq War one of the nation's greatest foreign policy blunders in recent history. He blamed the military action, launched by then President George W. Bush in 2003, for destabilizing the entire region and called it "even worse" than Obama.
He also said it will be "very difficult for any Republican to win," the seat held by retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Sundheim, while advocating for ramping up high-tech security measures along the U.S. Mexico border, said he supports giving the estimated 11 million immigrants in the county without documentation a "pathway to legal status."
It was one of the issues — along with his support for abortion rights — that prompted one of the debate moderators to ask Sundheim whey he was a Republican.
"I'm not a blind Republican, and when I see something wrong, I'm to say something about it," Sundheim said.
Unz also didn't shy about splintering from the GOP, and blamed the anti-immigrant rhetoric of former Gov. Pete Wilson for driving California voters away from the Republican Party.
He noted his support for increasing California's minimum wage, including his short-lived 2014 ballot initiative to increase it to $12 an hour. He held it up as proof that he was not beholden to any political ideology and added to that call by lashing out at a familiar target of Democrats.
"I think we have to crack down on Wall Street, just like Bernie Sanders is saying," Unz said.
Del Beccaro disagreed: "I'm not at all concerned about Wall Street and the rich. I'm not for them."
He said the real culprit has been stagnant economic growth, which has diminished wages for most Americans in recent years.
"What we've heard so far from everyone else is they want a government solution to this. But government can't solve everything. If it did, we'd have heaven already on earth because we have six trillion worth of American government."
Sundheim said he's opposed to raising the minimum wage. Instead, he advocated for a boost in the earned income tax credit — aimed directly at the lowest-income Americans.
On the economy, the two Democrats on stage each sounded similar themes. Sanchez talked about an affordable college education. Harris talked about helping working parents.
The contenders mostly kept it civil and short — limited to 90 seconds for most of their answers — and attempted to articulate why they are the most worthy to advance six weeks from now.
It was one of their best opportunities to make an impression on voters statewide. The final debate will be held on May 10 at San Diego State University, with the same five candidates invited.
Harris is the solid front-runner, but Sanchez is in second place and far ahead of the Republican pack, according to the most recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
With most voters entranced by the blustery, political theatrics of the presidential race, the Senate campaign has toddled along unnoticed in California.
The USC/Times poll in late March found 32% of registered voters in California were undecided on which candidate they will vote for in the primary.
Among Republicans and independent voters -- those registered as "no party preference" -- roughly 40% were undecided.
Most of the Senate candidates have been campaigning for months up and down the state, but the radio and television ads that usually flood the airwaves in major statewide political races have not yet materialized.
In reality, only Harris and Sanchez have enough money to even consider a media campaign which, in California, can cost millions of dollars. Sundheim, Del Becarro and Unz all have less than $100,000 in their campaign accounts. Harris had nearly $5 million and Sanchez had $2.3 million in the bank as of March 31.
Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics
Myers reported from Sacramento