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GOP Senate candidates spar in first face-to-face debate

The three major Republican candidates for U.S. Senate jousted Thursday over which would be the most effective steward of conservative principles, covering territory from Afghanistan to gun rights in their first face-to-face debate of the primary season.

Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore repeatedly questioned the conservative credentials of former Rep. Tom Campbell and sought to cast Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, as inconsistent on issues such as immigration and the Wall Street bailout. The three are vying for the GOP nomination to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Minutes into the debate DeVore lobbed his opening attack on Campbell’s record on taxes, faulting him for supporting temporary tax increases last year — including a 32-cents-a-gallon, one-year hike in the gas tax — to help the state recover from the fiscal crisis.

“I don’t believe there’s a tax increase in recent history that he hasn’t supported,” DeVore said during the debate, held at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. “I think that leaves something to be desired when it comes to conservative principles.”

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Fiorina soon piled on, calling both her opponents “career politicians,” and criticizing Campbell for refusing to sign a pledge to oppose higher taxes. Campbell defended his record — noting that the National Taxpayers Union Foundation twice named him the most frugal member of Congress when he served more than a decade ago.

Campbell said he objected to her insistence that he sign the pledge put forth by the Americans for Tax Reform, a national group.

“The problem with the pledge is you don’t know what the future is going to be. Take a look at my record, you will not find that I increased taxes on the American people in the income tax area, or any other area, for the budget purposes in all the years I was in Congress,” he said.

Later in the debate, DeVore repeatedly chided Fiorina for what he described as her shifting statements on immigration and for failing to directly answer a question about whether she supported a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Fiorina cut him off to correct his statement that he was the only candidate who opposed amnesty.

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“All of us are now firmly on the record against amnesty, that’s wonderful,” DeVore said. “That’s good progress, I’m glad that you’ve moved toward my positions.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Fiorina interjected. A short while later, after DeVore accused the others of supporting the Wall Street bailout, Campbell called DeVore’s memory “selective.”

“I don’t often agree with Tom Campbell,” Fiorina followed up. “He agrees with Barbara Boxer too often for my taste, but I agree with him on one thing, and that is that Chuck DeVore has a very selective memory.”

Thursday night’s forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, is the last debate planned before the June 8 primary. It was taped and will air at 11 a.m. Sunday on ABC stations in California.

The contest to unseat Boxer has been overshadowed by the bruising Republican race for governor between Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has blanketed the state with ads and donated $59 million of her own money to her bid.

Campbell, who unlike Fiorina and DeVore supports gay marriage and abortion rights, has led in recent polls, but Fiorina has often been close behind. And although DeVore has developed a following on conservative blogs and among “tea party” groups, he has struggled to catch up with his rivals in polls and fundraising.

The assemblyman’s supporters had hoped former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would boost his campaign by backing him. But on Thursday, Palin announced her support for Fiorina —an advisor to Arizona Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid — in a Facebook post.

Within hours, Fiorina sent an e-mail soliciting campaign contributions that included the message from Palin, who said the former Hewlett-Packard chief was the conservative in the race with the best chance to beat Boxer.

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During the nighttime debate, some of the sharpest differences emerged when the candidates were asked questions related to the recent bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square.

Campbell was the first to answer a question about whether individuals on the no-fly list should be permitted to purchase a gun. He said they should not, but both Fiorina and DeVore disagreed.

“Oh my goodness,” Campbell said after the other two candidates answered.

“That’s why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Assn., right there,” Fiorina interjected.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Campbell said. “Wait until you’re off the no-fly list then exercise your 2nd Amendment rights. That is not an infringement on anyone’s 2nd Amendment rights, and it seems somewhat unusual to take that position, except perhaps in a Republican primary.”

Fiorina said she knew people who had been on the no-fly list and that the list has been “way too large.”

The candidates found much to agree on during Thursday night’s forum. All three supported repealing President Obama’s healthcare legislation and criticized the Democratic financial reform measure moving through Congress as falling short, in part because it does not address the failures of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

All three also back Arizona’s tough new immigration measure, which requires police to ask people they stop about their immigration status if they believe they are in the country illegally.

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But Fiorina criticized DeVore’s recent statement that police might, for example, have grounds to question a group of men standing around at a Home Depot looking for work, if they looked nervous when approached by police and didn’t respond in English.

“I do think extreme rhetoric on both sides of this debate is not helpful,” Fiorina said. “We have many men, who perhaps speak Spanish who are looking for work, because we have unemployment in this state above 13%.”

Here are some of the more notable exchanges:

Afghanistan:

Both Fiorina and Campbell said they supported the Obama administration’s current mission in Afghanistan and said the president should continue to follow the guidance of his generals, including Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, on deployment levels and strategy.

But DeVore, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, said he was troubled by the administration’s strategy and that it could take 100 years to try to build a nation in Afghanistan. He said the administration should be more narrowly focused on intelligence-gathering, drone attacks and special forces operations “to continue to remorselessly kill the leadership of those who would seek to harm us.”

“We have to prepare for the next enemy, it’s not in Afghanistan, it’s the People’s Republic of China,” DeVore said without elaborating.

Later he repeated his challenge to the Afghanistan strategy: “Where is the end game? Are you just proposing that we stay in Afghanistan until they develop a modern economy and a modern democracy?”

Oil drilling:

Earlier this week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for new wells off the coast of Santa Barbara after monitoring the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Republican candidates said their positions on drilling were unchanged.

Fiorina said the spill pointed to potential regulatory problems and that the government needed to investigate what had happened.

“Nevertheless, I believe offshore drilling is absolutely necessary. We must take advantage of every source of energy that we have in this country,” she said, adding that “extreme environmentalists” had prevented the U.S. from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge two decades ago.

DeVore said that by saying ‘no’ to more offshore drilling, Schwarzenegger was consigning California to more foreign oil. “If you don’t get it off your own shores you’ve got to tanker it in, often from nations that hate our guts and use the money that we send them to fund terrorists who are trying to kill us,” DeVore said.

Campbell said he had always opposed putting in new drilling platforms off the coast of California but favors slant drilling from the coast.

Global warming:

All three candidates said they favored delaying implementation of AB32, the global-warming legislation signed in 2006 that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Foes of the measure are seeking to place an initiative on the California ballot that would suspend the requirements until the state’s unemployment rate drops.

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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