US Senate candidates clash over climate, jobs in last debate

Front-running Democrat in California's U.S. Senate race, Kamala Harris.

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Five candidates for California's open U.S. Senate seat jousted Tuesday over climate change, crime and the minimum wage, while Republicans targeted front-running Democrat Kamala Harris, in their final debate before next month's primary election.

Republican Duf Sundheim, a lawyer and former state Republican chairman, used his opening statement to accuse Harris of failing to keep crime in check. Harris, the state attorney general, later shot back, saying Sundheim was "playing around" with facts while she defended her record on seizing illegal guns and ammunition.

The brisk exchange was one of several during the hour-long match-up in which Republicans, lagging in polls and struggling for public notice, sought to highlight what they saw as flaws with Harris, who repeatedly defended her record in Sacramento.

The low-key contest to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer has been overshadowed by the presidential campaign and polls show many voters remain undecided.

The candidates -- Democrats Harris and Loretta Sanchez, and Republicans Tom Del Beccaro,  Sundheim and Ron Unz -- are each seeking one of two slots on the ballot in November.

Under California's unusual election rules, only the top two vote-getters advance from the June 7 primary. There is little doubt that one spot will go to front-runner Harris, and Sanchez, a congresswoman from Orange County, appears positioned to claim the second slot, although the little-known Republicans are hoping for an upset.

Questioned about gun violence, Unz, a software developer and theoretical physicist, called the debate over firearms "a distraction" and stressed drug policy needs to be reassessed. Sundheim said it should be left to states, not the federal government, could consider any new gun laws and accused Harris of failing to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. 

   Candidates also clashed over the minimum wage, though not along party lines.

   Del Beccaro and Sudheim warned that the state's $15 level, which will be reached incrementally, would cost jobs in the state's agricultural heartland. Unz said he would support a $12 federal wage and said California's rate should account for urban-rural economic differences. He added that immigration levels should be reduced, since a flood of workers creates pressure on wages. Sanchez said she endorsed the higher level.

   The five candidates are among 34 that will be on the ballot.

   Headlines in the race have been scarce, and the lagging candidates don't have enough money for widespread TV advertising, the typical way to reach voters in the vast state.

   Democrats are strongly favored to hold the seat -- the party controls every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature, and holds a 2.7-million edge in voter registration.

   The debate -- the second, and final, scheduled in the primary -- takes place with the election technically underway.

   Vote-by-mail ballots go out to millions of homes this week.