LOS ANGELES (AP) – The two candidates for California’s open U.S. Senate seat clashed in a series of pointed exchanges Wednesday over each other’s competence and ability to get things done, highlighting the stakes in their only televised debate.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats, dueled over issues from crime to terrorism, seeking to sway voters in a race that has been largely overshadowed by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The tone was often sharply critical. Harris used the hour-long matchup at California State University, Los Angeles, to repeatedly criticize Sanchez for her poor attendance record in Washington, saying the race is about “who shows up, and who gets things done.”
Sanchez attempted to frame Harris, a lifetime prosecutor, as ill-equipped for Washington at a time of global dangers, often referring to her own service on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees in the House. She also depicted Harris untrustworthy, a politician who “says one thing and does another.”
Sanchez entered the race lagging in polls and fundraising, while Harris is the pick of the Democratic establishment, counting endorsements from President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown.
Sanchez needed a command performance to try to close the gap but “Loretta Sanchez isn’t any closer to the Senate than she was an hour ago,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney, summing up the debate. He judged Harris’ performance as adequate, including effective arguments that Sanchez was often a no-show in Washington while campaigning in California. Sanchez argued she had never missed a crucial vote.
Sanchez embraced the outsider role: “Don’t listen to the establishment,” she said, adding that she didn’t have the Democratic Party’s endorsement when she first won her House seat.
The debate offered repeated confrontations, with the candidates sometimes talking simultaneously. Sanchez frequently gestured with her hands, often thrusting a finger for emphasis.
The contest came just a few days before mail-in ballots are distributed to millions of voters.
The race marks the first time in the modern era that a Republican will not appear on the Senate ballot, the Democrats-only runoff created by the state’s unusual primary election rules.
The TV audience was expected to be relatively small, and the debate will be competed for viewers with the playoff game between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets.
Sanchez, snubbed by her own party, has been trying to stitch together an unusual coalition that includes Republicans, Hispanics, Democrats and independents. She frequently faulted Harris for the state’s rising violent crime rates, an issue that could resonate with GOP voters.
As fellow Democrats, the two candidates share similar positions on many issues, including the $15 minimum wage, climate change and immigration reform.
The race has been invisible to many voters.
Typically, TV commercials would begin circulating widely at this stage in a high-profile campaign. They have not.
Sanchez, in particular, has struggled to raise money and it appears unlikely she will be able to finance the kind of advertising barrage typically needed to shift voters’ views.
Harris, in her second term, has run statewide campaigns and is better known.
Competence on the job was a central dispute.
Sanchez sought to tie Harris to rising homicide rates, arguing that she has failed in an area where the attorney general professes expertise. Harris recalled that in December, Sanchez was sharply criticized after suggesting that as many as two of 10 Muslims would engage in terrorism to establish a strict Islamic state.
Sanchez, from Orange County, later issued a statement saying the estimate did not reflect her views on the Muslim community in America, and most Muslims around the world are committed to peace.
Harris said such statements are “playing into the hands of ISIS,” and responding, Sanchez accused her opponent of twisting her words.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.