California Sen. Boxer, Fiorina Face Off In Debate

In blue, blue California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is in the fight of her political life. Her challenger: Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO. The two met in a debate Wednesday night.

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California is a prime target for Republicans hoping to take back the Senate in November. That's surprising, considering what an advantage Democrats have in the state. But Senator Barbara Boxer is running for a fourth term at a time when incumbents are suspect. And the famously liberal Boxer is facing perhaps her toughest opponent in Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who is making her first run for office. The two shared the stage last night on a Northern California college campus. It was their first and only scheduled debate.

As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, they agreed on just one, fundamental thing.

INA JAFFE: That one point of agreement, that they disagree on just about everything.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): There's a clear choice.

JAFFE: Said Barbara Boxer.

Sen. BOXER: There's a clear choice here on jobs. There's a clear choice on the issue of offshore oil drilling. There's a clear choice on the issue of a woman's right to choose - and many other areas that I think we'll get to tonight.

JAFFE: Boxer supports abortion rights. Fiorina doesn't. Boxer is against drilling for oil off California's coast. Fiorina thinks it's okay. But only one issue seems to interest Fiorina, and that's jobs. California's unemployment rate is 12.3 percent. Fiorina continually reminds voters that this is all happening on Boxer's watch. Clearly, says Fiorina, the stimulus package Boxer supported didn't work.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Republican, California Senate Candidate): Recovery summer has become the summer of despair.

JAFFE: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the stimulus has increased jobs, but unemployment keeps rising in key regions of California. Fiorina says if you really want to create jobs, roll back taxes and regulations on California businesses so they won't go to other states or other countries.

Ms. FIORINA: Because China, for example - like Texas, like Brazil - gives companies huge tax credits. They help them cut through regulation; they provide access to credit. That's what we need to do.

JAFFE: Boxer loves it when Fiorina brings up jobs going overseas. Each time, it gives her another opportunity to remind voters that as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina laid off tens of thousands of American workers before she herself was fired.

Sen. BOXER: She shipped 30,000 jobs overseas. And through all that pain, what did she do to show any sacrifice? She took $100 million. That's what happened on Wall Street.

JAFFE: It almost didn't matter what the panel of journalists at this debate asked about. The candidates were more consumed with defining each other's records than in any particular issue. Fiorina charged that after Boxer's 18 years in the Senate, she barely even has a record.

Ms. FIORINA: Her record is long on talk, and very short on achievement. And the reason it is short on achievement is because she is one of the most bitterly partisan members of the U.S. Senate. That is why, after 18 long years in the Senate, 28 years in Washington, D.C., she only has four, relatively insignificant bills with her name on them.

JAFFE: Boxer countered by citing a number of particular pieces of legislation she's helped to pass, but California voters don't seem to be impressed. The latest field poll showed that 52 percent of them disapprove of Boxer. Still, Fiorina trails by a few points in almost every public poll.

So who's going after those undecideds in the middle of the road? Well, it seems like neither of them, says Jerry Roberts, co-founder of the political website Calbuzz.

Mr. JERRY ROBERTS (Co-Founder, Calbuzz): This is as clear-cut as any statewide election that I can remember in California on economic issues, on taxation, on cultural issues - just from top to bottom.

JAFFE: All the more reason for Boxer and Fiorina to focus on defining each other's personalities and records. A really good story trumps the details of public policy anytime.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Walnut Creek, California.

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