The top two Republicans running for governor met for their first debate Thursday, clashing over their records, who was the true conservative and which one of them could bring change to Sacramento.
Largely unknown to the state's voters, Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) and businessman John Cox sparred for more than two hours, with the sharpest and most frequent barbs traded over their support — or lack of it — for President Trump.
Allen repeatedly blasted Cox for voting for libertarian Gary Johnson over Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
"If you didn't vote for the Republican nominee for president in 2016, you supported Hillary Clinton," Allen said. "If you're not voting for Trump, you're voting for crooked Hillary. If you chose to sit out, you supported eight more years of Barack Obama."
Cox said he regrets not voting for the president, adding that he didn't back Trump at the time because of his past support of Democratic candidates. He countered that Allen had previously donated to Democratic candidates, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is now running for governor, and Gov. Jerry Brown, the termed-out state executive they hope to succeed in office.
"I would cut my arm off before I gave any money to any Democrat, that's why I was unsure about President Trump," Cox said. "I will tell you this now, it was a mistake."
The two sparred at a meeting of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots at the Mill Creek Cattle Co. restaurant in San Bernardino County, where more than 200 potential voters ate spare ribs and fried chicken as they watched the hopefuls face off.
Cox and Allen both trail badly in the polls. If Republicans fail to unite behind one of them, it is unlikely that either will be one of the top two vote-getters in the June primary, resulting in a Democrat-on-Democrat general election. Cox, who has donated $3 million to his own campaign, has a financial advantage over Allen but still lags way behind the top Democratic candidates, including Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang.
Cox argued that he had crossover appeal that could sway independent voters, while Allen countered that Cox, a former Illinois resident who now lives in Rancho Santa Fe, had run for president, U.S. Senate and county recorder — and lost each time.
"There's no way this guy can win," said Allen, who also emphasized that he was the sole Republican to be born and raised in California.
Allen was a crowd favorite, frequently cheered for his robust denouncements of Democratic control of California as well as his full-throated support for the Trump administration, including urging the president and his attorney general to sue California over its "sanctuary state" policy.
Cox tried to paint Allen as a blustering and empty cipher who had failed to accomplish anything during his tenure in Sacramento. He repeatedly argued that he was the sole candidate who could take on special interests he dubbed "cronies" and their sway over state lawmakers, and touted his ballot measure proposal to reduce the size of legislative districts by dramatically increasing the size of the Legislature.
"I'm not a politician, I'm not as practiced. Maybe I have a charisma deficit, but I'm telling you I can win this because I'm going to talk to the people about the problems in this state and forging solutions," Cox said. "It's not a bunch of rhetoric, it's not a bunch of screaming, it's not a bunch of misleading talk."
Despite their disdain for each other, Allen and Cox share many of the same concerns and policy positions. A top talking point for both men is the high cost of living and the lack of housing affordability in the state. They are also both promoting competing ballot measures to repeal the recently enacted gas tax increase.
Times staff writer Phil Willon in Sacramento contributed to this report.
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