During the hourlong debate in which both women exchanged feisty jabs, Fiorina called Boxer an agent of big government spending, taxes and policies that strangled America's entrepreneurial spirit. Boxer fired back by criticizing Fiorina for serving the interests of "billionaires, millionaires and companies that outsource jobs," rather than average Americans.
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The recession and how to turn around California's 12.3 percent jobless rate dominated the debate at St. Mary's College in the eastern San Francisco Bay area city of Moraga. The forum also allowed the women to contrast their differences on a number of other topics, including abortion, immigration, gay marriage and global warming.
Boxer's campaign indicated a second debate could be announced within days.
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.
"This election is between someone who's fighting for jobs day in, day out - jobs right here in America, versus someone when she had the chance laid off 30,000 workers and shipped jobs to China," Boxer said. "This election is about someone who's working hard so that we can see the words 'Made in America' again and someone who is proud of her time at HP when she stamped 'Made in China, Made in India' on their products."
Fiorina, who led Hewlett-Packard Co. from 1999 to 2005, said she offered a prescription of smaller government and tax cuts to benefit small- and family-owned businesses.
"If you look at Sen. Boxer's long track record of 28 years in Washington, D.C., you will see this: She is for more taxes, she is for more spending, she is for more regulation, and she is also for big government and elite extreme environmental groups," Fiorina said.
Boxer 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 needed 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.
On many of the contentious issues, Fiorina said she would defer to the decision of California voters despite her personal conservative 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.
She said 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.
Boxer called for comprehensive immigration reform while Fiorina, who supports Arizona's immigration law, blamed the federal government for failing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
Fiorina, however, said she supports the Dream Act, a federal bill that would allow young illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship by graduating from college or trade school, or serving in the military. Fiorina said it is unfair to "punish children who through no fault of their own are here trying to live the American dream."
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's running on her record as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, so what she did there counts," Boxer said. "And I'm going to keep on telling the truth about it."