SAN JOSE — In a spirited but mostly civil debate Thursday, the two leading GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate nomination clashed over issues ranging from abortion to offshore oil drilling, assault weapons, tobacco taxes and even the Middle East.
With opinion polls showing the race deadlocked, state Treasurer Matt Fong and car alarm entrepreneur Darrell Issa each clearly hoped that the event would vault him to victory Tuesday--and to a matchup with Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer in the fall.
Neither blinked, and neither committed any flagrant missteps as they exchanged jabs and compared resumes. The Republican rivals have traded insults by fax, surrogates and spokesmen for months, but this was the first time that the two have gone eyeball to eyeball and were permitted to question one another, a rarity in political campaigns.
Many voters remain undecided in the race, according to a Times poll last week, and the debate offered a clear set of contrasts between the two.
Both oppose abortion but disagree on a constitutional amendment to ban it. Fong supports taxes on tobacco products; Issa does not. Fong opposes offshore oil exploration; Issa does not. Fong opposes a Palestinian state; Issa does not.
Both men tried humor to turn the issue of Issa's wealth and self-financed campaign to advantage. "I hate running against millionaires. This is my second one," Fong said in a reference to his 1994 opponent for treasurer, Sacramento developer Phil Angelides.
Issa, appearing more at ease than his opponent, offered a mock "apology" for using his own money to bring his message about controlling the spread of government to the public. Judging from the volume of laughter, Issa won the battle of the one-liners.
After refusing for weeks to accept Fong's challenge to debate, Issa switched gears two weeks ago and finally agreed. The switch came as polls began to show that Issa's support had peaked and that Fong was gaining.
A Tense Moment
Despite recent controversy engendered by a Times story about his business history, Issa was buoyant as he entered the half-empty engineering auditorium at San Jose State University, bantering with reporters and students alike.
He joked with one student to "forget political science, switch to electrical engineering, that's where the future is." He teased reporters about covering the campaign only when it turned nasty.
The more serious Fong took the stage without much fanfare and, within a minute of the opening of the debate, fired the first shot--labeling Issa a "self-described outsider whose sole claim to office is his wealth, his business experience, and [whose] entire political experience is writing checks."
Issa, in response, branded Fong "a second-generation career politician," a reference to Fong's mother, former Assemblywoman and California Secretary of State March Fong Eu.
The moment of highest tension--when the proverbial pin could have been heard thudding on the utility carpet--came when Issa upbraided Fong for alleged dirty campaigning.
"There unfortunately has been a pattern in this campaign of accusing me of being a racist," Issa said, looking directly at Fong. "It's hurtful. . . . If there is an apology owed, Matt, it's that one."
Fong made no response.
Issa was referring to Fong's charge in March that Issa had been insensitive to Jews when he likened the strains between President Clinton and the wealthy to "class warfare" between Hitler and the Jews. And on Tuesday, a Fong spokesman said that if Issa gets the nomination, he will be the biggest embarrassment to the party since former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was the GOP candidate for governor in Louisiana.
Although the two candidates have given innumerable interviews, the hourlong debate provided the best opportunity of the campaign to display their philosophic and stylistic differences.
Issa indicated that he would support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Fong said he opposes abortion but does not believe that the nation is ready for such an amendment.
Issa said that refusing to even consider oil drilling off the California coast puts the nation at risk of more tanker spills like the one involving the Exxon Valdez, and a possible cutoff of oil from the Middle East. The ban on offshore drilling put in place under the Bush administration is set to lapse in two years.
"Candidly, we cannot afford to import oil from overseas at a higher risk to the environment," Issa said. "More oil is spilled each year from tankers than from offshore drilling. . . . I'm a big supporter of being as self-sufficient as possible."
Fong was adamant in his opposition: "Why would we want to dare risk the ecology of our shoreline for that insignificant amount of oil?"
And in an issue that has surfaced only recently in the campaign, they disagreed on American foreign policy in the Middle East.