LOS ANGELES--A raucous, catcalling audience and volley of sharp political attacks enlivened the first major debate in California's 2018 governor's race Saturday, with front-runner Gavin Newsom taking the brunt of the blows from the candidates on stage.
Most of Newsom's rivals tried at the event to chip away his dominant lead in the polls and money race as the contest, which has been sleepy for the last year, grows more visible and confrontational. The face-off took place at the Empowerment Congress Summit, an annual gathering held at the University of Southern California.
Newsom, the lieutenant governor and former mayor of San Francisco, kept a steely smile throughout most of the morning debate. He largely stayed out of the fray and on message, even after he was accused of being inconsistent and unrealistic on single-payer health care, and too cozy with teachers unions.
The sharpest exchange came from rival Democrat and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ridiculed Newsom for supporting a state-sponsored universal health care system last year without identifying a way to pay for it. The proposal was shelved in the Legislature because of a cost estimated to be as high as $400 billion.
"Anyone who's telling you that we should do it without a plan is selling you snake oil," Villaraigosa said.
State Treasurer John Chiang, who like Villaraigosa said he supports the concept of single-payer health care but said it was financially out of reach, accused Newsom of changing his position on the issue depending on the audience he was in front of.
Newsom responded by saying that bold change is needed because the current, ineffective health care system is driving California into bankruptcy, and that the state needs a governor who is not afraid to act. It was one of the only times Newsom shot back at Villaraigosa.
"Antonio just mentioned that he's on Medicare. Isn't that interesting. A single-payer plan in this country ... that brings down costs," said Newsom, who dominates the fundraising race with more than $15 million raised to date, in part because he entered the contest three years ago -- far before any of the other candidates.
The debate also grew increasingly chippy between the two Republicans on stage, Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, with the biggest clash over which one of the two has played a bigger role in GOP-led efforts to repeal a newly approved gas tax.
The barbed exchanges between the candidates was often interrupted by applause, loud groans and cascades of boos from the at-capacity crowd inside USC's Bovard Auditorium. The event was hosted by the Empowerment Congress, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Los Angeles.