The three major Republican candidates for U.S. Senate jousted Thursday over which would be the most effective steward of conservative principles, covering territory from Afghanistan to gun rights in their first face-to-face debate of the primary season.
Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore repeatedly questioned the conservative credentials of former Rep. Tom Campbell and sought to cast Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, as inconsistent on issues such as immigration and the Wall Street bailout. The three are vying for the GOP nomination to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer.
Minutes into the debate DeVore lobbed his opening attack on Campbell's record on taxes, faulting him for supporting temporary tax increases last year — including a 32-cents-a-gallon, one-year hike in the gas tax — to help the state recover from the fiscal crisis.
"I don't believe there's a tax increase in recent history that he hasn't supported," DeVore said during the debate, held at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. "I think that leaves something to be desired when it comes to conservative principles."
Fiorina soon piled on, calling both her opponents "career politicians," and criticizing Campbell for refusing to sign a pledge to oppose higher taxes. Campbell defended his record — noting that the National Taxpayers Union Foundation twice named him the most frugal member of Congress when he served more than a decade ago.
Campbell said he objected to her insistence that he sign the pledge put forth by the Americans for Tax Reform, a national group.
"The problem with the pledge is you don't know what the future is going to be. Take a look at my record, you will not find that I increased taxes on the American people in the income tax area, or any other area, for the budget purposes in all the years I was in Congress," he said.
Later in the debate, DeVore repeatedly chided Fiorina for what he described as her shifting statements on immigration and for failing to directly answer a question about whether she supported a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Fiorina cut him off to correct his statement that he was the only candidate who opposed amnesty.
"All of us are now firmly on the record against amnesty, that's wonderful," DeVore said. "That's good progress, I'm glad that you've moved toward my positions."
"Oh for heaven's sake," Fiorina interjected. A short while later, after DeVore accused the others of supporting the Wall Street bailout, Campbell called DeVore's memory "selective."
"I don't often agree with Tom Campbell," Fiorina followed up. "He agrees with Barbara Boxer too often for my taste, but I agree with him on one thing, and that is that Chuck DeVore has a very selective memory."
Thursday night's forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, is the last debate planned before the June 8 primary. It was taped and will air at 11 a.m. Sunday on ABC stations in California.
The contest to unseat Boxer has been overshadowed by the bruising Republican race for governor between Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has blanketed the state with ads and donated $59 million of her own money to her bid.
Campbell, who unlike Fiorina and DeVore supports gay marriage and abortion rights, has led in recent polls, but Fiorina has often been close behind. And although DeVore has developed a following on conservative blogs and among "tea party" groups, he has struggled to catch up with his rivals in polls and fundraising.
The assemblyman's supporters had hoped former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would boost his campaign by backing him. But on Thursday, Palin announced her support for Fiorina —an advisor to Arizona Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid — in a Facebook post.
Within hours, Fiorina sent an e-mail soliciting campaign contributions that included the message from Palin, who said the former Hewlett-Packard chief was the conservative in the race with the best chance to beat Boxer.
During the nighttime debate, some of the sharpest differences emerged when the candidates were asked questions related to the recent bombing attempt in New York's Times Square.
Campbell was the first to answer a question about whether individuals on the no-fly list should be permitted to purchase a gun. He said they should not, but both Fiorina and DeVore disagreed.
"Oh my goodness," Campbell said after the other two candidates answered.
"That's why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Assn., right there," Fiorina interjected.
"I can't believe what I'm hearing," Campbell said. "Wait until you're off the no-fly list then exercise your 2nd Amendment rights. That is not an infringement on anyone's 2nd Amendment rights, and it seems somewhat unusual to take that position, except perhaps in a Republican primary."