For second Boxer-Fiorina debate, most of the pressure is off

California Senate candidates go head to head – but not face to face – Wednesday in their second debate. For the radio-only event, Carly Fiorina will be in L.A. Barbara Boxer will be in a D.C. studio.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (l.) shakes hands with Republican Carly Fiorina before a debate at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., Sept. 1.

Call it “debate light.”

As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and challenger Carly Fiorina hold their second debate – this one only on radio and to a limited audience – most of the pressure of a live TV encounter is off, say experts.

The debate Wednesday, on local public-radio affiliate KPCC from 1-2 p.m. PDT, will be co-moderated by La Opinion’s Metro editor Gabriel Lerner and Patt Morrison, a well-known local print and radio journalist. Ms. Fiorina will be in the studio with the moderators, and Senator Boxer will be in a Washington, D.C., studio.

“All they have to do is not get caught in any kind of major gaffe, not get prickly or explode.... The candidates have all the control anyone could ask for,” says Sherry Jeffe, political scientist at the University of Southern California. Because they are facing neither each other nor an audience on a live stage, it’s not unreasonable to expect that either could use voluminous notes of talking points, she says.

As was the case in their first debate, Fiorina is expected to try to paint Boxer as an ineffective incumbent, and Boxer to try to articulate why Fiorina is a newcomer so conservative that she is out of step with Californians.

“Boxer will hit hard at Fiorina’s vulnerability of her performance as head of Hewlett Packard, when she fired people and eventually got fired herself,” says Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm. “Boxer has the incumbent label draped all over her, so Fiorina will try to capitalize on voter anger over everything.”

Since their first debate was televised Sept. 1 – in which neither scored a definitive knockout, according to media reports – Boxer has widened her lead over Fiorina, 51 percent to 43 percent, according to a new California Field Poll. Fiorina’s mission must be to reverse that slide, analysts say.

“Fiorina needs to keep hammering on the theme of change – that’s her winning issue,” says Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego.

“Barbara Boxer needs to make sure the word ‘abortion’ is heard at least 20 times in this debate, because Fiorina’s pro-life stance is her weak point for voters,” he says.

Boxer needs to continue to push poll numbers in her direction by convincing voters that she is not the "big bad incumbent" that Fiorina says she is, says Renee Van Vechten, a University of Redlands government professor. And she needs to create the impression that Fiorina didn’t do a good job in the business world and so will not serve California well in Washington.

“Fiorina needs to articulate why Barbara Boxer’s long tenure in Washington is part of the problem,” she says.

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