Reporting from Moraga, Calif. — Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina met in a contentious first debate Wednesday that seethed with disputes over their records and covered a broad range of issues from the economy to climate change to abortion rights.
For much of the hourlong debate, Boxer kept her opponent on the defensive by steering her answers into scathing critiques of Fiorina's record as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, where she fired more than 30,000 workers before she was dismissed in 2005.
Asked if, after her three terms in the Senate, it was time to give someone else a turn, Boxer said voters would decide whether to give her another shot "or elect someone who made her name as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, laying thousands and thousands of workers off, shipping jobs overseas, making no sacrifice while she was doing it and taking $100 million. I don't think we need those Wall Street values right now."
Fiorina, in turn, portrayed Boxer as an ineffective Washington relic who had lost touch with the concerns of Californians and whose liberal ideology has led to higher taxes and more regulation for the state's residents and businesses.
"She is for more taxes, she is for more spending, she is for more regulation, she is also for big government and elite extreme environmental groups," said Fiorina, who said her rival had accomplished little in the Senate because she is "one of the most bitterly partisan members."
"Her record is long on talk and very short on achievement," Fiorina said.
The combative nature of the debate at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga, 20 miles east of San Francisco, was perhaps to be expected in a contest between a former business executive who has fashioned herself as a "battle-tested" advocate for conservative causes, and a longtime liberal standard-bearer who has vowed to live up to her last name in what may be the most difficult race of her career.
Though Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans in California, Boxer and her Democratic colleagues are fighting strong political headwinds this year because of voters' discontent with the slow pace of the economic recovery. Two months before election day, the two candidates are tied in most polls.
The candidates did not linger long when they met onstage before a live audience, stopping for a brief handshake before taking their places behind simple wooden lecterns that gave the illusion that they were the nearly the same height. (Boxer was standing on a box that gives her a boost of several inches.)
Much of the debate focused on the economy and illustrated the clear choice for voters between Boxer's call for greater government intervention and Fiorina's advocacy of a bevy of tax cuts that she said would give businesses more freedom to hire and expand.
Boxer accused Fiorina of opposing every recent job-creation effort in the Senate, including an education bill that provided California with $1.2 billion to save the jobs of 16,500 teachers, and a bill that would increase access to credit and extended tax breaks for small businesses.
"Every time you really get past the surface, you see my opponent fighting for billionaires, for millionaires, for companies that shipped jobs overseas," Boxer said.
Fiorina said that the key to economic recovery was less government, taxation and regulation. She called for extending the Bush administration's tax cuts, saying that their expiration would further harm the struggling economy, and expressed support for repealing the estate tax and creating additional tax breaks for small businesses.
"To create jobs, we need to make sure in particular our small businesses, our family-owned businesses, our innovators and our entrepreneurs are freed from strangling regulation and freed from taxation," Fiorina said.
One of the sharpest exchanges occurred when the candidates were asked about abortion.
"If my opponent's views prevailed, women and doctors would be criminals, they would go to jail. Women would die, like they did before Roe v. Wade," said Boxer, a fierce critic of restrictions on existing abortion rights.
Fiorina reiterated her support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, but tried to turn the discussion back to the economy. "The most important issue right now in this election is the creation of jobs," she said.
The two repeatedly tussled over Fiorina's tenure at Hewlett-Packard, with Fiorina citing Boxer's use of the issue as a slight not to her but to the company's employees.
"I think it's actually a shame that Barbara Boxer would use Hewlett-Packard, a treasure of California, one of the great companies in the world whose employees work very hard and whose shareholders benefited greatly from both my time as CEO and all the hard work of the employees I had the privilege to lead, I think it's a shame she would use that company as a political football," Fiorina said.