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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.

Boxer, Fong Widen Areas of Disagreement

In brisk but civil debate, they clash on affirmative action and impeachment inquiry, as well as earlier issues.


SAN FRANCISCO — In an issues-filled debate with scant reference to the White House sex scandal, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Matt Fong on Monday restated their differences on abortion, gun control and taxes and found some additional issues to disagree on.

During the hourlong encounter, which was spirited but civil, Fong mentioned the impeachment inquiry into President Clinton's behavior only in response to a question from the panel of reporters.

Boxer, whose approval ratings have dipped in public opinion polls, initially appeared ill at ease and defensive but quickly found her stride.

Fong, California's treasurer, gave the strongest performance of his campaign. He had joked in recent weeks that he was working hard to prepare because even his family had criticized his fumbling during the pair's first debate in August.

The event, which assumed a pace so brisk that it ended several minutes early, forcing the moderator to ad lib, yielded only two relatively fresh revelations:

* As senator, Fong said, he would propose an "affirmative opportunities" program to replace affirmative action. He said that although affirmative action was a laudable effort to assist African Americans, it balkanized America into "protected groups" that get preferences.

"We need to move forward and find a way to truly help people . . based on the qualification of need, not ethnicity," he said.

Boxer said she believes in affirmative action, unless it begets quotas "and that's wrong." She said she supports the review of affirmative action programs undertaken by the Clinton administration.

* Boxer said that, given the opportunity, she would have voted with those Democrats in the House of Representatives who wanted a time limit of Dec. 31 on the impeachment inquiry, rather than with the majority that favored the more open-ended impeachment process.

"I believe there's a time to move on," she said. "That's what I'd like to do."

That statement--which she has made countless times during the campaign--drew an angry attack from Fong, who renewed one of the standbys of his candidacy, comparing Boxer's relative reticence in criticizing Clinton to her more assertive stance attacking Republicans Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood when they faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

"It took seven months of absolute silence . . . then finally you come out and you give your tepid response," Fong said. "Barbara Boxer, your silence for months was certainly deafening, but your hypocrisy and the way you just presented yourself is ear-splitting."

On other matters, the two also disagreed. Boxer favors continued American support for the International Monetary Fund; Fong does not.

And Fong disagreed with Boxer on the need to further regulate campaign financing.

Each candidate took the other to task for alleged inaccuracies, often with a tinge of sarcasm.

Fong accused Boxer of spending her career "weakening our nation." He slammed her recent vote against construction of the "Star Wars" defense system against ballistic missiles.

"I think our national defense is at an all-time low," Fong said.

Boxer said she voted against the plan because it would require the abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty and could lead to ballistic missiles from the former Soviet Union being sold to "rogue nations."

Fong shot back that Boxer said she takes her military advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff but remained silent when the chiefs recently asked Clinton for a budget increase. "Make up your mind," he said. "Do we need more or do we need less? I think we need more."

Again and again each worked to bring weighty national issues to a personal level that might appeal to reticent voters.

The two candidates clashed over Fong's flat-tax proposal and whose analysis of it is accurate. Fong has proposed such a tax as a fairer alternative to the current system; Boxer asserts that it would mean, for example, higher taxes for a police officer making $50,000 but, "if you live off daddy's inheritance, you pay nothing."

Later, in defending her record--which Fong has consistently characterized as weak--Boxer recited a checklist of her most important bills.

Among them she mentioned her Children's Environmental Health Protection Act, telling the panel of journalists to consider the water glass sitting in front of them. The bill passed, she said, "so from now on, you can give that glass of water to your child."

On most topics, their stands were no surprise.

Boxer supports abortion rights and accuses Fong of opposing them. Fong asserts that he thinks abortion should be allowed in the first trimester only and that he opposes public support for the procedure.

"It is wrong for my opponent to try to scare women into thinking I am trying to take away a woman's right to choose," he said.

Fong said the best way to control guns is to increase punishments for using them. Boxer supports further gun controls, including trigger locks.

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