Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her Republican opponent, Matt Fong, exchanged recriminations Thursday about health care, Social Security and campaign tactics.
Boxer called Fong a threat to Social Security and accused him of being in league with health maintenance organizations that are more interested in profits than the health of Californians.
Fong responded that Boxer's TV ad on the HMO issue is tinged with racism and that she is distorting his record and trying to win votes by spreading fear.
"My opponent believes that an HMO doesn't have to be held accountable in court if they kill you!" Boxer told about 100 elderly people at a Modesto union hall. "Don't you think it's time they put our vital signs ahead of their dollar signs?"
Boxer supports legislation to allow patients and family members to sue HMOs. Fong said he would support such legislation if there is accompanying tort reform to limit the financial liability of HMOs.
"You can't sue your way into good health," said Fong, campaigning in Southern California.
Boxer, in speeches and in her TV advertising, says that "only HMOs and foreign diplomats can't be sued." Fong said that using his picture next to the words "foreign diplomat" was "despicable."
"We are a diverse state, and we should celebrate that diversity," Fong said. "We should not use it to create fear and division. Barbara Boxer should be ashamed of herself."
At Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, which Fong toured with Marilyn Quayle, wife of the former vice president, a group of parents and others demonstrated against his views on HMOs. Fong declined to meet the protesters, who were kept outside.
Each candidate was seeking votes Thursday in a region where the other is thought to have a lead.
At a senior citizens gathering in Modesto, Boxer, who made several stops in the Central Valley, said Fong wants to turn Social Security into "social insecurity."
To keep the system solvent, Fong has proposed allowing each recipient to invest part of his or her fund, which carries financial risk. Boxer opposes the idea as dangerous.
Fong said Boxer is distorting his position to gain votes. "To move me out of the center [of the political spectrum], she has to distort my record and distort hers," he said.
In a speech in Torrance, Fong indicated more strongly than ever that on the controversial issue of water, he would tilt toward the wishes of agriculture and Southern California. Boxer has favored the environmental movement and Northern California. Fong said he would help Southern California get more water from Northern California.
Boxer spent a large part of the day talking about law enforcement and education, topics tailored to appeal to conservative voters.
Also stumping the Central Valley was GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dan Lungren, who toured a cotton processing field in Bakersfield and a bustling electronics firm in Clovis.
Atty. Gen. Lungren continued to assail his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, for his political ties to the state's trial lawyers, a major source of campaign contributions.
Davis "seems to think the liberal trial lawyers are the most productive members of society," Lungren said. He amplified the charge in a new TV spot, saying that trial lawyers "gave Davis millions to allow frivolous lawsuits to destroy California business and jobs."
Speaking to a Fresno radio station, Lungren appealed to local pride.
Hailing the state's three-strikes law--championed by the father of a Fresno murder victim--Lungren said: "You know, that idea did not come out of Los Angeles, Sacramento or San Francisco or Washington, D.C. It came out of the heartland of California, Fresno, and that's one of the things I think is important."
Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.