WASHINGTON — California is broke, its 12.1 percent unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation, housing prices have plunged, home foreclosures have skyrocketed and a drought is threatening the state's dwindling water supply. There also are plenty of other issues for would-be U.S. senators to debate, including the battered economy and a massive effort to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Instead, the state's Republican Senate primary has been heating up over Israel.
With former Rep. Tom Campbell leading in the polls, his challengers for the Republican nomination — businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore — are taking persistent shots at the front-runner, saying that his record consistently has been anti-Israel.
As a result, Campbell will have to play defense Friday when California's Republican Senate candidates meet in their first debate.
On Monday, Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, asked Campbell to explain why he'd voted against aid to Israel when he was in Congress, why he opposed recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and why he accepted contributions from groups that have been linked to Islamic extremists.
The Campbell camp said that the former congressman had a pro-Israel record and would wait until the debate, which will be hosted by a Sacramento radio station, to respond to Fiorina's specific charges. Campbell pushed for Friday's debate as a way to air the charges against him fully.
Fiorina will face some hard questioning, too, however. DeVore plans to ask about her years as the head of Hewlett-Packard, when, he charges, the company made millions by selling printers and other goods to Iran through a distributor in the Middle East.
"This is the time bomb waiting to explode on the Fiorina campaign," said Josh Trevino, DeVore's spokesman.
Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Fiorina, called the charges "unfounded attacks."
"These politically motivated allegations are false, based solely on speculative media reports and are not supported by any verified facts," she said. "During Carly Fiorina's tenure at HP the company complied with the law and did not violate U.S. sanctions regarding trade issues with Iran."
DeVore, who's running last in the polls, is eager to focus on Israel and Iran and to have Campbell and Fiorina spend time defending their records.
"It's a great opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with these people and explain why he's the only consistent conservative with nothing strange to explain about the past," Trevino said. "I think it'll be a great contrast."
All in all, it's shaping up to be a fiercely contested race, which will be decided in a primary June 8. The winner will try to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in November.
In advance of the debate, the rhetoric has gotten plenty hot: Last week, one of Campbell's prominent supporters said that Fiorina's campaign manager had called Campbell an anti-Semite, a charge that was quickly denied.
James Fisfis, Campbell's spokesman, said the attacks on Campbell "have sunk to unforeseen depths, going from bizarre to, now, grotesque."
Campbell, who was elected five times to the U.S. House of Representatives after he took a leave of absence from Stanford University, where he was a law professor, wants Friday's debate to focus on national security and foreign policy.
In response to the controversy over Israel, Campbell said he'd voted against a $30 million increase in aid to Israel because it would have taken money from an aid allotment for Africa. He said that the Jerusalem measure in 1990 had been introduced by a Democrat as a way to embarrass the George H.W. Bush administration.
Regarding his alleged link to extremists, Campbell says he made a mistake in associating with Sami Al-Arian, a sympathizer of radical Islamic movements. Campbell wrote a letter of recommendation on Al-Arian's behalf, but he says that even George W. Bush posed for a photograph with Al-Arian in the spring of 2000, when Bush was campaigning for president.
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