Republican Senate candidates engage in spirited sparring on ‘John & Ken Show’

Tom Campbell attacked Carly Fiorina for her sparse voting record and questioned her party loyalty. Chuck DeVore pounded Fiorina for supporting a proposition that would have made it easier to pass school bonds. Fiorina chided Campbell for backing tax increases to help balance the state’s budget.

That was how it went Tuesday during a freewheeling debate among the three Republican candidates vying to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer. With sunbathers catching rays at a pool a few steps away, the trio sparred in a Costa Mesa hotel meeting room over taxes, immigration and who would be Boxer’s toughest opponent this fall.

The debate on KFI’s “John & Ken Show” comes at a critical juncture in the GOP contest. Polls continue to show a substantial percentage of voters undecided and many with only a hazy sense of the candidates. The three rivals have struggled for voters’ attention in an election season dominated by the governor’s race between former EBay chief Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who have spent tens of millions of dollars blasting voters with television ads.

With two weeks to go before the primary, the candidates looked for every advantage. Encouraged by their hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI-AM (640), to “fight it out” and interrupt one another before a live audience of about 200 people, Campbell took the opening shot — skewering Fiorina for her comments last month to Politico that the immigration debate had taken on an “unfortunate racist tone.”

While all three criticized Boxer and the Obama administration for lax enforcement of immigration laws, Campbell said that he was sorry that Fiorina had brought the concept of racism into the debate. He said accusations of racism had been used to “intimidate” and “silence people so you don’t have an honest debate.”

That critique was quickly overshadowed by sniping between Fiorina and DeVore, an assemblyman from Irvine. Fiorina castigated DeVore for backing the 2005 and 2008 state budgets that she said “committed this state to spending we can’t afford.” DeVore questioned whether Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, could be trusted to keep her pledge not to raise taxes.

During one of four eight-minute segments that the hosts designated for “mudslinging,” DeVore pounced. “What is her tax record?” he asked.

“I am not a career politician,” Fiorina said. “I come from the real world, so I don’t have a long track record of votes.” When she began to digress about a Boxer fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday night—"What I really want to ask is why is Barbara Boxer and President Obama in San Francisco raising money when President Obama ought to be down in Louisiana …trying to help the poor people of the Gulf states"—DeVore interrupted: “I asked about taxes.”

In 2000, said DeVore, Fiorina co-wrote an op-ed piece with Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr urging support of Proposition 26, a ballot measure that would have changed Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limited property taxes, and made it easier to pass school bond measures.

The measure was defeated by voters. “And you didn’t even bother voting in the election,” DeVore said to Fiorina. (According to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, Fiorina did not cast a ballot in that election.)

After interrupting Fiorina three times as she tried to clarify her record, DeVore said he was “looking for consistency.”

“I’ve always voted against taxes,” DeVore said. “This is important, ladies and gentlemen, because our country is on a precipice — do you want people to follow through on their promises? Or do you want people who have a past record of coming out against Prop. 13?”

“I’m sure it’s very frustrating for Chuck DeVore to have so many conservatives endorsing me,” Fiorina replied after explaining that the measure was narrowly worded and had garnered broad bipartisan support. “Maybe it makes Chuck DeVore, who’s sort of dog-paddling at 14% in the polls — maybe it makes him feel better to belittle other people’s conservative credentials.”

Campbell, in turn, was repeatedly challenged by both of his opponents for backing temporary tax increases last year. He explained that the short-term tax hikes were paired with spending cuts as part of his broader plan to balance the state budget. Citing his top rating from the National Taxpayer’s Union Foundation while he was in Congress, he argued that as a fiscal conservative with moderate views on social issues he was the best suited of the three to take on Boxer.

Fiorina countered that Campbell made that argument in two other bids for the Senate, “and he lost resoundingly.”

When it was Campbell’s turn to challenge Fiorina, he again returned to her spotty voting record. In one of the afternoon’s funniest exchanges, Campbell asked Fiorina whether she had voted for him when he unsuccessfully ran against Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000.

Fiorina hesitated for a moment, then confessed: “No, I didn’t.”

DeVore chimed in: “I did!”

Campbell, who was seated between the two, turned to DeVore and pumped his hand.

“I didn’t vote for Dianne Feinstein, either,” Fiorina added.