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California’s U.S. Senate Candidates Bicker Over Some Issues In Their First Debate, But The Real Flashpoint Is Donald Trump

The three Democrats running for California’s open Senate seat sought to define their differences at their first debate tonight, but the the real flashpoint was with the sole Republican on the stage, Steve Garvey, and where he stood on Donald Trump.

After he said that he would support the former president if he returned to office, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) tried to get him to say whether he would vote for him again.

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“What more do you need to see of what he’s done to say that you will not support him, that you will not vote to put him back in office?” Schiff asked.

“There’s identity politics at its finest right there, trying to paint me into the corner,” Garvey, the former Dodger star and political newcomer, responded. “Trying to call me MAGA. … I am my own man. I make my own decisions.”

Garvey said that he voted for Trump twice, but then Porter interjected, “As your own man, what is your decision?”

He responded, “You’re banging on that trash can, just like the Astros did a few years ago.”

And for a number of minutes more, the exchange continued, with Garvey criticizing Joe Biden and defending Trump’s presidency, but never revealing how he would vote. Instead, Garvey seemed to elicit even more baseball references and pushback before telling the USC crowd, “Let’s face it, at the end of the day, it’s all a personal choice. In my personal choice, I will make it in the sovereignty of wherever that is.”

The debate, sponsored by Fox 11, USC Dornsife and Politico, covered a host of issues, including ones where there were differences among the Democrats, including the Israel-Gaza war and earmarks. Through the 90-minutes, moderators Elex Michaelson and Melanie Mason moved through a list of insightful topics and questions, albeit candidates often deferred to their introductory talking points.

As much as Garvey may be a longshot in true blue California, the Democrats on stage may have had different reasons for wanting to engage with him. The top two finishers in California’s open primary will go on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Porter and Lee risk being aced out by Garvey, who has been No. 2 to Schiff in some polls. For Schiff, attacking Garvey may also be elevating his prominence and help him consolidate support on the right.

Schiff and Garvey got into a bit more later in the debate, when the former baseball star took a swipe at the Trump nemesis. “I think you’ve been censured for lying.”

Schiff then insisted on answering “the MAGA enablers of his in the Congress.”

“The reason our democracy is in trouble is folks don’t have the courage to stand up when they need to,” Schiff said.

Lee slammed Garvey after he chided the rest of the field on homelessness. “When was the last time any of you went to the inner city, actually walked up to the homeless as I have over these last three weeks?” Garvey said, adding that he “went up to them and touched them and listened to them.”

“They said, ‘You’re the first time anybody has come up and asked us about our life,'” Garvey said.

That didn’t sit well with Lee, who said, “As someone who has been unsheltered, I cannot believe how he described his walk and touching and being there.” They then exchanged more words, before Michaelson said, “Let’s get some order in here.”

During much of the debate, Porter repeatedly cast herself as someone running against Washington’s lobbying and corporatist swamp, Schiff emphasized his ability to get things done, and Lee cited a host of progressive values, including Medicare for All, that have long had her embrace. Garvey characterized himself as a Republican moderate — giving some faint praise to Obamacare and vowing to vote against a national abortion ban — while taking a hard line on issues like the border.

As was expected, Schiff and Porter bickered at moments. He questioned her effectiveness; she suggested he was in the pocket of corporations.

“Representative Schiff may have prosecuted big oil companies before he came to Congress, but when he got to Congress he cashed checks from companies like BP, from fossil fuel companies,” she said, while insisting that she has “delivered results on climate in my few years in Congress.”

Schiff responded, “First of all, I gave that money to you, Katie Porter, and …the response I got was thank you, thank you, thank you. But look, at the end of the day, it’s about what have you gotten done? I didn’t hear anything from Representative Porter about anything she has accomplished.”

With the primary just six weeks away on March 5, the challenge for all the candidates in the coming weeks to gain voter attention. Schiff and Porter are up with ads, and as substantive as the debate was, chances are that’s the way most Californians will experience this showdown.

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