LOS ANGELES — California’s two U.S. Senate candidates had as much to say about each other as the direction of the country in an hour-long debate that delivered a dose of drama but appeared unlikely to alter the trajectory of the lopsided race.
The highlights of the only scheduled debate between Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez included tense exchanges and pointed fingers. At times they were talking simultaneously, offering different versions of subjects from crime rates to Muslims and terrorism.
But did the Wednesday contest change the chemistry of a race in which Harris has led in polling and fundraising from the start, while gathering endorsements from President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown?
“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.
Harris, a career prosecutor, and the Orange County congresswoman came into the matchup hoping to sway voters in a race that has been overshadowed by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Much of it came down to arguments over each other’s competence and ability to get things done.
Harris used the platform at California State University, Los Angeles, to repeatedly criticize Sanchez for her spotty attendance record in Washington, saying the race is about “who shows up, and who gets things done.”
Sanchez attempted to frame Harris 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.”
The debate came just a few days before mail-in ballots are distributed to millions of voters. The TV audience was expected to be relatively small, and the debate competed for viewers with the playoff game between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets.
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.
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.
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.
With Harris claiming the state Democratic Party endorsement, Sanchez embraced the outsider role: “Don’t listen to the establishment,” Sanchez said, adding that she didn’t have the party’s endorsement when she first won her House seat.
As fellow Democrats, the two candidates share similar positions on many issues, including the $15 minimum wage, climate change and immigration reform.
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.