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Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina engaged in a sharp exchange Wednesday over who is best suited to guide the country out of recession, with the challenger blaming Boxer for policies "that are devastating the state."
The recession and how to turn around California's jobless rate, stuck above 12 percent for months, dominated their first debate, an hour-long event at St. Mary's College in the eastern San Francisco Bay area city of Moraga.
Fiorina said she and her husband have lived the American dream — she working her way to the top of the corporate ladder after starting as a secretary and he after starting out as a tow truck driver. But she said that chance at rising prosperity is being lost, in part because the U.S. is not doing enough to encourage business.
"I think the American dream is too hard for too many people," she said.
She then took direct aim at Boxer, who is seeking a third term in the Senate, saying her long track record in Congress consistently hurt job creation and did too little to help the middle class.
"The results of her policies are devastating for this state," Fiorina said.
Boxer, a tenacious campaigner, fired back. She criticized Fiorina for shipping 30,000 jobs overseas before being let go as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co.
She said Fiorina fights not for average Americans, but for billionaires, millionaires and companies that outsource jobs.
"I'm in the United States Senate because I fight for the people, I fight for the dream," Boxer said, noting Fiorina's $21 million severance package after she was let go. "I don't think we need those Wall Street values right now."
The senator has framed a vote for Fiorina as a vote to return to Bush-era economic policies that benefited the wealthy but left middle-class Americans facing high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.
The stakes are high for both candidates in the debate.
Boxer has had narrow re-election victories in the past but faces potentially her toughest challenge this year. She is running in an anti-incumbent environment in which Republicans are highly motivated and faces a female candidate for the first time as a senator, throwing a new dynamic into her campaign.
Fiorina has a 12-to-1 fundraising disadvantage to Boxer and needs to make a favorable impression on voters who mostly know her as the CEO who was ousted from the iconic Silicon Valley company. Because Republicans are less than a third of registered voters in California, she must find a way to appeal to the 20 percent of voters who are independent.
To do that, she has tried to stay focused on the economy in the campaign and during the debate, which was aired live on radio and television stations throughout California.
The forum also touched on a number of other topics, including abortion, immigration, gay marriage and global warming. Fiorina's views on many social and environmental issues are more conservative than that of most Californians.
For example, she would like to see Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, overturned. Fiorina also has said she supports expanded offshore drilling despite the oil spill in the Gulf.
On many of the contentious issues, Fiorina said she would defer to the decision of California voters despite her personal views. She said she disagreed that the will of the voters could be overturned by a judge, referring to a recent federal ruling against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in California.
"Whatever your views about gay marriage, I think many of us would conclude that when voters have such a clear decision, for that decision to be overturned by a single judge seems perhaps not appropriate," said Fiorina, who favors marriage between a man and a woman.
Both candidates have a reputation for toughness and for not backing down — Boxer as an unabashed liberal who voted against the Iraq war, and Fiorina as someone who rose to the top of American business at a time when it was rare to see a woman in the chief executive's suite.
True to form, they used every opportunity to attack each, Fiorina saying Boxer had a lackluster record to show for her three terms in the U.S. Senate and Boxer continually attacking Fiorina's tenure at HP, which lasted from 1999 to 2005.
At one point Fiorina said it was unfair for Boxer to use the company, a Silicon Valley icon, against her. Boxer responded that it was Fiorina who was running on her record at HP.
She said the two candidates presented a stark choice for California voters, since they differ on almost every issue of significance. Fiorina agreed, saying her campaign was a call "that we take our government back, make it listen and make it work."