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Analysis: Five California candidates in one hour makes for an unsatisfying U.S. Senate debate

California Senate candidates George "Duf" Sundheim, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz and Tom Del Beccaro debate last month in San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maybe this year’s outlandish presidential contest has set too high a standard for political drama, making everything else seem humdrum. Whether it was that comparison or just reality, Tuesday night’s fleeting 55-minute debate among five California candidates for a U.S. Senate seat delivered disappointment as much as anything.

The format allowed candidates a wind-up but rarely a fully-thrown pitch; the organizer’s variations on “We have to move on” closed down most exchanges and prevented the candidate-to-candidate conflicts that can illuminate and enliven.

The absence of interaction left the candidates for the June 7 primary in their own lanes: Democrat and front-runner Kamala Harris did little to hurt her standing — if displaying nothing to suggest she has a deeply passionate well of belief from which she draws her careful answers. Her party challenger, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, took every opportunity to underscore her own experience in Washington but did little to distinguish herself ideologically from Harris.

Republican George “Duf” Sundheim criticized Harris nearly every time he spoke — the only candidate to directly take on the front-runner — but otherwise came across as the sort of GOP establishment figure run over elsewhere this year. Republican Ron Unz cast himself as the candidate with a scientist’s eye but undercut himself on climate change. Republican Tom Del Becarro, alone among the Republicans, delivered succinct answers that seemed to capture the sensibility of this outsider year — which means nothing given the state’s strongly Democratic voting patterns.

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As much as anything the debate reflected one of the down sides of California’s top-two voting system, by which the first and second finishers less than four weeks from now move on to a November run-off. In a longer or looser debate, or one that probed ideological distinctions between members of the same party, the candidates onstage might have had a chance to make themselves more fully known to the Californians who will judge them.

Instead, the candidates seemed lost in the same sort of muddle which will mark the ballot on which they are placed.

The five who attended the debate at San Diego State University — and more than two dozen minor candidates — are vying for the seat that has been held since 1992 by Barbara Boxer, who announced last year that she would retire at the end of her current term. If it seems a foregone conclusion that a Democrat will retain the seat, the June primary raises some enticing questions: Will two Democrats emerge for a November battle that marks the first same-party runoff in a U.S. Senate race? Or, in keeping with the norm, will a Republican manage to coalesce party support and grab a spot?

The answers seemed as uncertain at the end of the debate as they were at the beginning.

As the leading candidate in the race in every recent statewide poll, Harris had the most to lose Tuesday night. As a weak front-runner, she also had the possibility of some gains.

She didn’t lose much due to her opponents, since most of them bypassed the chance to take her on, and she was able to parry Sundheim’s frequent jousts with mild indignation. But neither did she take full advantage of the possibilities afforded her, even as she demonstrated the sharpest political skills.

The Harris onstage was the Harris evident throughout the underwhelming Senate campaign. She reiterated a line used in the candidates’ first debate in describing herself as “fearless” but not “reckless.” By no stretch did she approach either on Tuesday.

She came under some pointed questions from panelists, representing public radio and television stations, about her actions as attorney general in investigations into police departments accused of wrong-doing, allegations of errors at the now-shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant and over an inquiry into the Porter Ranch gas leak. In each case, she insisted that a critical characterization was wrong, that she could not freely discuss the matter because of attorney-client privilege or that her views could best be understood by taking a “broader” perspective.

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A passage about climate change defined the candidates as much as any exchange on Tuesday.

First up among the Republicans was Sundheim, a former state party chairman from Silicon Valley who referred to his place of residence as an inspiration in how to deal with what he called “one of the key issues of our time.”

“There’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it,” he said, after coming down on the moderate side of his party. “The right way to go about it is to encourage innovation. ... I think what we need to do first is unleash the creative potential of the people of this country.”

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Unz, an entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate, went to great lengths to explain his bona fides as a scientist but then disagreed with the judgment of an overwhelming majority of scientists.

“I know what I know and what I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not persuaded that the evidence is there and that the evidence is strong enough for us to restructure our entire economy.” He then quickly segued to blaming the state’s environmental problems on overpopulation driven by legal immigration, a repeated target of his during the debate and in the campaign.

The third Republican, former state party chief Del Beccaro, insisted on what he called “practicality.”

“The reality is we’re not going to have consensus among all Americans on climate change,” he said, and urged that the subject turn to a subject “we can get agreement on”: pollution. It was an artful dodge that allowed him to avoid the Republican split over climate change by focusing instead on what he called “reasonable regulations,” returning cleaner manufacturing jobs to the United States, and exporting profitable climate change technology.

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Among the Democrats, Sanchez showed the effect of being in Washington for two decades. The Orange County representative cited her “100% voting record” on environmental issues, delivered a bit of Washington-ese by saying “we need to incentivize new technology” — and also was the only candidate to bring up the Paris environmental accords, a key Obama administration effort, as a model for world cooperation.

“We can’t do it alone; we need to do it with the rest of the world,” she said. “Curtailing our gas emissions isn’t enough anymore. This is about our entire planet.”

Harris, given her turn, tossed in references to her endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the fact that as attorney general she had “actively defended California’s environmental laws against extraordinary attacks” by the oil industry. She ticked off a litany of areas in which the state has experience: water recycling, capturing storm water, desalination.

“California is the canary in the coal mine on this issue,” she said in a bout of home-state boosterism designed to offend no one. “California will be the solution for our nation and this globe.”

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Had the candidates gone at each other’s views, there might have been an interesting conversation about the conflicts between environmental regulations and job growth, for starters. But each of them, one after the other, found themselves on the receiving end of interruptions from the moderator.

“We’ve got to end it there,” the moderator said as Sanchez sought to offer a last bit of explanation about a recycling program in Orange County. “Thank you.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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