Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina battle hard in first Senate debate

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina met in a contentious first debate Wednesday that seethed with disputes over their records and covered a broad range of issues from the economy to climate change to abortion rights.

For much of the hourlong debate, Boxer kept her opponent on the defensive by steering her answers into scathing critiques of Fiorina's record as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, where she fired more than 30,000 workers before she was dismissed in 2005.

Asked if, after her three terms in the Senate, it was time to give someone else a turn, Boxer said voters would decide whether to give her another shot "or elect someone who made her name as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, laying thousands and thousands of workers off, shipping jobs overseas, making no sacrifice while she was doing it and taking $100 million. I don't think we need those Wall Street values right now."

Fiorina, in turn, portrayed Boxer as an ineffective Washington relic who had lost touch with the concerns of Californians and whose liberal ideology has led to higher taxes and more regulation for the state's residents and businesses.

"She is for more taxes, she is for more spending, she is for more regulation, she is also for big government and elite extreme environmental groups," said Fiorina, who said her rival had accomplished little in the Senate because she is "one of the most bitterly partisan members."

"Her record is long on talk and very short on achievement," Fiorina said.

The combative nature of the debate at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga, 20 miles east of San Francisco, was perhaps to be expected in a contest between a former business executive who has fashioned herself as a "battle-tested" advocate for conservative causes, and a longtime liberal standard-bearer who has vowed to live up to her last name in what may be the most difficult race of her career.

Though Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans in California, Boxer and her Democratic colleagues are fighting strong political headwinds this year because of voters' discontent with the slow pace of the economic recovery. Two months before election day, the two candidates are tied in most polls.

The candidates did not linger long when they met onstage before a live audience, stopping for a brief handshake before taking their places behind simple wooden lecterns that gave the illusion that they were the nearly the same height. (Boxer was standing on a box that gives her a boost of several inches.)

Much of the debate focused on the economy and illustrated the clear choice for voters between Boxer's call for greater government intervention and Fiorina's advocacy of a bevy of tax cuts that she said would give businesses more freedom to hire and expand.

Boxer accused Fiorina of opposing every recent job-creation effort in the Senate, including an education bill that provided California with $1.2 billion to save the jobs of 16,500 teachers, and a bill that would increase access to credit and extended tax breaks for small businesses.

"Every time you really get past the surface, you see my opponent fighting for billionaires, for millionaires, for companies that shipped jobs overseas," Boxer said.

Fiorina said that the key to economic recovery was less government, taxation and regulation. She called for extending the Bush administration's tax cuts, saying that their expiration would further harm the struggling economy, and expressed support for repealing the estate tax and creating additional tax breaks for small businesses.

"To create jobs, we need to make sure in particular our small businesses, our family-owned businesses, our innovators and our entrepreneurs are freed from strangling regulation and freed from taxation," Fiorina said.

One of the sharpest exchanges occurred when the candidates were asked about abortion.

"If my opponent's views prevailed, women and doctors would be criminals, they would go to jail. Women would die, like they did before Roe v. Wade," said Boxer, a fierce critic of restrictions on existing abortion rights.

Fiorina reiterated her support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, but tried to turn the discussion back to the economy. "The most important issue right now in this election is the creation of jobs," she said.

The two repeatedly tussled over Fiorina's tenure at Hewlett-Packard, with Fiorina citing Boxer's use of the issue as a slight not to her but to the company's employees.

"I think it's actually a shame that Barbara Boxer would use Hewlett-Packard, a treasure of California, one of the great companies in the world whose employees work very hard and whose shareholders benefited greatly from both my time as CEO and all the hard work of the employees I had the privilege to lead, I think it's a shame she would use that company as a political football," Fiorina said.

Boxer countered that Fiorina has based her political run on her corporate resume, so the matter was fair game.

"She's running on her record as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. What she did there counts, so I'm going to keep on telling the truth about it," Boxer said.

The candidates also sparred over immigration. Fiorina reiterated her objections to comprehensive immigration reform. But in a nod to the importance of Latino voters, who make up 18% of the state's likely voters, Fiorina said for the first time Wednesday night that she would support the so-called DREAM Act, which would allow certain undocumented youths to earn legal status by attending college or serving in the military.

It was a rare moment of agreement: Boxer is a co-sponsor of that bill.

During the debate, sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED-FM and KTVU television, the candidates offered their views on a host of issues, including:

• Global warming: Fiorina did not directly answer when asked whether she believes global warming is real. "We should always have the courage to examine the science," she said, "but all scientists agree on this: The only way to impact global warming is to act globally. A state acting alone will make no difference."

She criticized Boxer's efforts to pass federal legislation that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions through a program of emission permits. Boxer's bill, Fiorina said, "was completely the wrong track" and would have cost "trillions of dollars in lost economic output [and] millions of jobs."

But Fiorina declined to take a position on Proposition 23, the November ballot measure that would suspend California's landmark global warming law until unemployment drops to 5.5% or lower for four consecutive quarters.

Boxer seized on her opponent's reticence, using it as an excuse to return to Fiorina's record at HP:

"If you can't take a stand on Prop. 23 I don't know what you will take a stand on," Boxer said. "If we overturn California's clean energy policies that's going to mean that China takes the lead away from us with solar, that Germany takes the lead away from us with wind, but I guess my opponent is kind of used to creating jobs in China and other places. I want those jobs created here in America."

• Same-sex marriage: Fiorina again said she opposes same-sex marriage, and supports civil unions and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But she declined to answer when asked if the federal government should recognize civil unions for purposes such as Social Security benefits.

Boxer, who also favors the repeal of the strictures against gays and lesbians in the military, said homosexual couples would gain full equality only when same-sex marriage was recognized. "The only way to get the rights that married couples have is to go for marriage equality," she said. "I'm glad to say I believe people are coming around to see it."

• Assault weapons ban: Fiorina restated her opposition to the federal assault weapons ban, saying the law is vague and ineffective. "We have loads of laws, and most of the time, criminals are breaking those laws and we are curtailing citizens' lawful rights to carry guns," she said. "The assault weapons ban is extremely arbitrary about what qualifies as an assault weapon."

Boxer countered that such bans have kept people safe. "To go back to that dangerous yesterday makes no sense at all," she said. "It has bipartisan support."

• Stem-cell research: Fiorina said she felt comfortable allowing federal funding to go to research using adult stem cells, as well as embryos that would have been destroyed otherwise. "It is when embryos are produced for the purposes of destruction, for the purposes of stem cell research that I have a great deal of difficulty," she said. Boxer did not address the question, which was directed to Fiorina.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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