After having listened to the entirety first primary debate in the California Senate contest, there is only one rational conclusion to be drawn: Assemblyman Chuck Devore was the only candidate to emerge from this debate unscathed, and the only candidate to sound like a serious and credible threat to Barbara Boxer in November. Round one of this contest went convincingly to Devore over Carly Fiorina and Tom Campbell.
Right out of the box in this debate, the candidates were given an opportunity for a 60-second opening statement. Tom Campbell was afforded the opportunity to go first. His voice shook audibly with anger (as it would continue to do throughout the debate. Literally the second sentence out of his mouth he was angrily responding to accusations of anti-semitism and blaming Fiorina surrogates for spreading rumors about him. In fact, the entirety of his opening statement was a screed demanding that Fiorina stand by her staffers or apologize for them. I could perhaps understand why Campbell felt the need to do this, but it struck a bizarre and offputting first note.
In fact, this was a constant theme throughout the debate. Campbell said very little of any positive affirmative nature throughout the entire debate, but instead was constantly angry and on the defensive against actual or perceived slights committed against him by the other Republicans in the race. He clearly telegraphed a dislike and disrespect for Fiorina in particular, and sounded nothing like the frontrunner in this race. On the merits, his defenses of his record with respect to Israel were uneven in parts. His response to the charge that he voted “against funding for Israel” in 1998 and 1999 (to wit, that he voted for $3B in funding, but not the additional amount sought by Clinton because it took money from Africa), was plausible; his defense of his vote to make Jerusalem a split capital was a draw with respect to how he handled Fiorina’s specific attack (but wrong on the merits), and his defense of his numerous associations with Jihadists were halfhearted-to-nonexistent.
Fiorina, for her part, was more measured in her opening statement, but if possible, even pricklier than Campbell during the rest of the debate. It was clear for the duration of the debate that the mere mention of Chuck Devore’s name got under her skin. In one exchange, when Devore pointed out information from a FOIA release, and Fiorina disputed its accuracy, Devore responded, “I’m just telling you what the Pentagon told us,” to which Fiorina sharply replied, “Did you hear what I said?” several times.
It was a petty exchange, and one that echoed a theme that remained constant throughout the debate, which was surprisingly acrimnous from the word “Go.” Tom Campbell was clearly upset and stung by the accusations made against him by Carly Fiorina. Carly Fiorina was clearly upset and stung made by the accusations made against her by Chuck Devore. The debate reverbrated with their defensive actions and postures, which were audible even through the radio. Only one candidate in the debate remained cool, calm, collective, and substantive on the issues, his own qualifications, and his message: Chuck Devore. He emerged from the debate without a substantive glove laid upon him, and was clearly the calmest and most collected voice in the room.
This allowed him to close with a convincing argument for his own candidacy: all the candidates poll equally well against Barbara Boxer at this point in the campaign. After hearing the other two candidates bloody each other up on a host of embarrassing issues for the last hour, why wouldn’t the Republicans nominate someone with an unimpeachable record, like Chuck Devore? Why give Boxer a candidate against whom she would open the discussion with substantive personal toeholds against the GOP nominee? It is a question that admits of no easy answer for Tom Campbell, Carly Fiorina, or Republican primary voters.
We may yet see if Campbell or Fiorina can recapture forward movement in the days ahead, but in the first round of head-to-head debates, Chuck Devore emerged the clear winner.