SACRAMENTO — Meeting head-to-head with no moderator and few spectators, state attorney general candidates Dan Lungren and Arlo Smith sparred tenaciously on issues ranging from abortion to public corruption in their first of a series of pre-primary debates Monday.
During the highly unusual encounter in the press conference room of the state Capitol, Republican Lungren sought to portray Democrat Smith as being soft on crime. Smith, meanwhile, emphasized his strong support for abortion rights.
Both spent significant portions of the non-televised 70-minute forum attacking their unseen opponent, Democrat Ira Reiner, whom they accused of cheating the public by declining to participate. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Reiner has said he prefers not to tangle with Lungren until after the June 5 primary. The winner of the Reiner-Smith contest will face Lungren in the November general election.
The noontime confrontation, refered to by the two participants as a modified Lincoln-Douglas style debate, differed markedly in one respect from its role model. When Illinois senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas held their first encounter, more than 12,000 people showed up. In contrast, the Smith- Lungren forum drew 37 onlookers--most of them reporters, photographers and campaign aides who were paid to attend.
On the other hand, the freewheeling format allowed Smith and Lungren to focus on a wide range of issues, unrestrained by a panel of questioners and other limitations that serve to make most modern day political debates little more than dual press conferences.
In their opening remarks, Lungren called for laws to limit appellate rights for convicts in death penalty cases and Smith vowed to set up a public corruption unit in the attorney general's office.
The highlight of the debate was a 30-minute unstructured exchange in which each candidate was free to pose questions and butt in while the other answered.
For the most part, the give-and-take proved civil yet spirited, with San Francisco Dist. Atty. Smith, 62, repeatedly jabbing at the 43-year-old former congressman for his "lack of understanding of the law."
At one point, Smith, while discussing the last execution in California during the 1960s, said to Lungren: "You may have been in high school at the time."
Retorted Lungren: "As was the greatest bulk of voters."
Lungren, meanwhile, criticized Smith for focusing on public corruption in the wake of revelations last week that Smith's campaign manager had phoned Smith's chief prosecutor to urge swift action in a politically sensitive probe in order to enhance Smith's image as a district attorney.
Smith acknowledged, as he did last week, that his manager, Marc Dann, had used "poor judgment" in calling the prosecutor to discuss an investigation into alleged campaign finance violations during a referendum for a new ballpark in San Francisco. Smith, however, added that he believes there was nothing inherently wrong with Dann urging swift action because "that runs so deeply in our common law that it goes back to the Magna Carta."
"You have never worked in the trenches and you don't understand," Smith chided Lungren.
"I understand politics," replied the Republican.
On abortion, Smith, a strong abortion rights advocate, sought to pin down Lungren, a longtime abortion foe. While Smith declared that legislation to outlaw state funding for abortions would be unconstitutional under the right to privacy provisions of the state Constitution, Lungren disagreed and said he would defend such laws in court. Asked if he would defend legislation outlawing anything but therapeutic abortions, Lungren was not as specific.
"It would really depend on what the overall U.S. constitutional decisions had been as well as the state of California Constitution," he said.
The next Smith-Lungren debate is scheduled Friday in Fresno. Subsequent sessions are tentatively scheduled for San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.