ANAHEIM - Republican Neel Kashkari tore into rival Tim Donnelly on Thursday, saying one reason many prominent Republicans are endorsing his candidacy for governor is because they fear Donnelly's impact on the party.
Donnelly, in the only scheduled debate of the campaign, responded by asserting his front-runner status among Republicans, and suggesting Kashkari's endorsers are out of touch.
"They don't kick a dead dog," Donnelly said. "They only attack you when you're the frontrunner."
Kashkari's remarks came after a relatively cautious initial 30 minutes of the campaign, when he was asked why Republians shouldn't vote for Donnelly. Kashkari referenced recent controversies in which Donnelly tried linking him to Islamic law, and to a vote in the state Assembly in which Donnelly opposed banning the sale of Confederate flags in state-run gift shops.
"You've managed to denigrate Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus," Kashkari said. "That's true."
The crowd erupted in jeers, with one audience member swearing at Kashkari.
The two candidates were set to debate for 90 minutes at the Ayres Hotel Anaheim, in a live broadcast of "The John and Ken Show," a conservative program on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.
The debate is the only one scheduled before the June 3 primary election, and the atmosphere was unusually boisterous for a gubernatorial debate. There was no ticketing. About 150 people, some of whom lined up hours in advance, filled a hotel conference room and adjoining buffet area for the debate. The hosts said they would take questions from anyone in the audience.
Neither Donnelly nor Kashkari is likely to beat Brown, a popular Democrat, and Brown has all but ignored them. The debate's hosts said Thursday that Brown did not respond to a request to join the debate, and in his place they put a skeleton with a "Jerry" name tag on the stage. The radio show hosts dressed the skeleton in a shirt and tie and one of them, John Kobylt, rubbed petroleum jelly on his head.
The race between Donnelly and Kashkari is a race for second place and a spot against Brown in the November runoff election.
Donnelly leads Kashkari by a wide margin in public opinion polls, but he lacks resources for traditional advertising. Kashkari has poured $1 million of his own money into the campaign and is airing what is likely to be a limited run of ads on TV.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, is backed by many members of California's political and professional classes, and he has announced endorsements from prominent Republicans such as former California Gov. Pete Wilson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Donnelly has enjoyed fervent support from rank-and-file conservatives, and debating at the Ayres Hotel is something of a coming home. Donnelly said he came to a "John and Ken" event at the hotel when he was first running for the state Assembly, in 2010, distributing campaign literature and trying, unsuccessfully, to get on the air.
PHOTO: Republicans Tim Donnelly, right, and Neel Kashkari wait in Anaheim to start a debate hosted by "The John and Ken Show" on KFI AM 640 on May 15, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/David Siders