With a narrowing window to appeal to a critical swath of independent voters, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, sparred in a radio debate Wednesday over abortion, the environment and immigration policy — thorny issues that each tried to use to paint their opponent as out of the mainstream.
From the opening moments of the debate, in which Fiorina blamed Boxer for economic distress in the Central Valley, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive accused the three-term senator of choosing ideological crusades over practical solutions.
"Senator Boxer has been acting for the last 28 years in Washington, D.C., as if she is not held to account by anyone other than herself," Fiorina said. "She has been ineffective. She hasn't solved the problems of the people of California."
Boxer, in turn, characterized Fiorina as a failed executive who is "hostile" to the environment, extreme on issues such as abortion rights and in favor of an agenda tilted toward helping billionaires and millionaires rather than average voters.
"This race presents one of the clearest choices in the nation," Boxer said. "My opponent doesn't represent the people of California."
For months, the Senate race has been defined by the two candidates' differing views on how to lift the country out of recession, but Wednesday's wide-ranging radio debate, sponsored by KPCC-FM (89.3) and the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion on the Patt Morrison show skimmed over some of their more familiar economic policy prescriptions.
The moderators pressed the candidates, who participated from radio studios on different coasts, on each topic for three-and-half minutes at a time, delving more deeply into the distinctions between them on the environment, healthcare, immigration policy, as well as some aspects of foreign policy. The non-economic issues, while not at the forefront this year, have been important in the past to the middle-of-the-road voters who determine winners in California elections.
The topic of abortion led to one of the sharpest exchanges between them. Fiorina sought to blunt Boxer's attacks on her opposition to abortion rights. Though Fiorina in the past has said she would "absolutely" seek to overturn the landmark decision known as Roe vs. Wade, she said Wednesday that she would not introduce any legislation to that effect if elected to the U.S. Senate and would not use the issue as a litmus test for a Supreme Court nominee.
Accusing Boxer of "shocking" mischaracterizations of her record, Fiorina said none had been more "unconscionable than the senator's continued assertion that I support the criminalization of abortion."
"She knows very well that this is not true," Fiorina said. "Barbara Boxer is engaging in this kind of misrepresentation to change the subject…from her own extreme views — which are that a baby doesn't have rights until it leaves the hospital, to change the subject from her own extreme views that a girl seeking an abortion at 12 shouldn't have to notify her mother."
Boxer, whose career has been defined in part by her advocacy for abortion rights, countered that her opponent's support for overturning Roe vs. Wade means "women and doctors could be put in jail in any state in the union."
"I gave birth to two premature babies who are now my beautiful kids who have given me grandkids, and I cared about them for the entire time that I was pregnant, and the entire time that they were in that hospital," Boxer said.
On immigration, Fiorina accused Boxer of vilifying the people of Arizona who favored their state's tough new law stepping up enforcement of immigration laws. But she repeatedly refused to say what should be done with the 12 million people who are in the country illegally.
"That's what people are tired of about Washington, we always skip over the problem that's right in front of us and want to talk about something else," she said. "The problem right in front of us is the border is not secure and we don't have a temporary worker program that works."
Boxer replied that she did not "vilify anybody," but faulted Fiorina for refusing to discuss the fate of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
"She's pitting border security against everything else — as a matter of fact, she said anything else is a distraction." The millions here illegally "are part of our community," Boxer said: "If you follow her thinking they will all have to be deported."
Although the format of the radio debate featured fewer direct confrontations compared with their earlier face-to-face meeting, both candidates were repeatedly cut off by the moderators after dancing around questions and avoiding specifics.