Trump plays a starring role in California Senate debate as four candidates clash

Four candidates for a U.S. Senate seat in California squared off in their first debate Monday as they compete for a rare open seat vacated by the late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

And Donald Trump, the likely 2024 Republican presidential nominee, who would be all but guaranteed to get pummeled in the general election in the solidly blue state, played a starring role.

The three Democrats — U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee — all sought to highlight their opposition to the former president and corner the lone Republican onstage, former baseball player Steve Garvey, for refusing to say whether he’d support Trump this fall.

“What more do you need to see of what he’s done to be able to say that you will not support him?” Schiff asked him after saying he “took on” Trump during his first term and calling him a “dictator” and “the gravest threat to democracy in our history.”

Garvey responded that “both times, he was the best person for the job,” referring to the 2016 and 2020 elections. But he declined to say whether he’d support Trump or President Joe Biden this year, drawing some laughter from the crowd.

“What they say is true: Once a dodger, always a dodger,” Porter said, referring to Garvey’s past as a Los Angeles Dodgers player. “This is not the minor leagues. Who will you vote for?”

Porter tried to carve out an economic-populist identity, calling herself a consumer advocate who “took on greedy corporations.” She vowed to “stand up to corporate power” and work to “address income inequality and wealth inequality” if elected.

Porter said “special interests have too much power” and “we as Californians — we don’t have enough,” adding that she wants to ban earmarks — the congressional practice of inserting spending measures to benefit particular recipients into bills — and stock trading for members of Congress.

The candidates appeared in the debate hosted by the USC Dornsife Center, KTTV-TV and Politico in Los Angeles ahead of a March 5 “jungle primary,” in which all candidates are on the same nonpartisan ballot and the top two will advance to the general election.

While Schiff is most likely the front-runner, according to various recent surveys, it’s unclear whether Garvey or one of the two other Democrats would be the second candidate to advance.

Porter and Lee sought to peel votes away from Garvey, repeatedly criticizing his equivocations on divisive issues and portraying him as being too conservative for California.

“Abortion is a freedom issue. And no government that champions liberty and justice for all should restrict people from deciding for themselves if and when to have a child,” Porter said. “So Mr. Garvey needs to be clear where he stands on this — and, actually, all the other issues.”

Lee defended her opposition to ending the filibuster in the Senate to codify abortion rights. Asked whether that would make it easier for Republicans to ban abortion nationwide, she said, “We have to fight politically to make sure that doesn’t happen.” She called for an end to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using taxpayer money for abortions.

Garvey sought to walk the line between appealing to conservatives without making himself unacceptable in the liberal state. Asked twice, he struggled to specify anything he’d disagree with his party on. He said he objects to “one party” controlling California, calling himself “a conservative moderate.” He added: “I’m commonsense, I’m compassionate. I’m consensus-building. And I think we need to get back to that in California.”

“I would not vote for a federal ban on abortion,” he said. “Let’s make that clear right now.”

At another point in the debate, when they were asked to rate the economy on a scale of 1 to 10, Schiff gave it a 7. Lee gave it a 6, Porter gave it a 5, and Garvey said it’s a “5 at most.”

The debate also revealed a split among the Democrats, with Porter emphasizing her opposition to earmarks, while Schiff and Lee defended the practice.

The candidates tussled over one of the most divisive issues in the race: how to handle the war between Israel and Hamas.

While Lee has called for a cease-fire in Gaza, Schiff defended his opposition to it.

“My heart breaks for all the Palestinians who have lost lives. It’s not, in my view, incompatible with human nature to grieve the loss of life — innocent Palestinians as well as innocent Israelis. I support a two-state solution,” Schiff said. “We have to get back to a two-state solution. Israel has to defend itself. We can’t leave Hamas governing Gaza.”

Porter said she favors “a permanent cease-fire” to ensure “a bilateral, durable peace” in Israel and the Palestinian territories after certain conditions are met but added: “‘Cease-fire’ is not a magic word. You can’t say it and make it so.”

Garvey differed from the Democrats, saying he believes it’s “naive to think that a two-state solution can happen.”

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