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Sparring Debate

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Location: Unknown

Five congressional candidates argue over Iraq, health care

By Will Oremus / Daily News Staff Writer
In a lively and well-attended two-hour debate, a relaxed-looking Jackie Speier took the best shots of four lesser-known candidates aiming to distinguish themselves from the Democratic front-runner to replace the late Tom Lantos in Congress.

The anti-war Republican Mike Moloney, moderate Republican Greg Conlon, Democrat Michelle McMurry and Green Party stalwart Barry Hermanson used the only public debate before an April 8 special election to challenge Speier's positions on the Iraq war, health care, free trade and federal spending.

Each candidate at times drew approving nods from the audience, and Moloney threatened to steal the show with his colorful rants against the George W. Bush administration. Unfazed, Speier stuck to her game plan of portraying herself as a "proven commodity" who's ready to step into the Capitol and fight for the 12th District right away.

The heavy favorite after long, popular tenures representing similarly drawn districts in the state Assembly and Senate, Speier needs 50 percent of the vote in April to assume Lantos' seat for the remainder of the year. If no candidate gains a clear majority in April's open primary, the leading vote-getter from each party will run in June to finish Lantos' term.

A separate June primary will yield each party's nominee for a November general election to serve the next full two-year term, which begins in January. Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one on the voter registration rolls in the district, which includes central and northern San Mateo County and southwestern San Francisco.

Speier played the part of the presumptive winner Tuesday, delivering punchy lines on Iraq that drew applause even though the League of Women Voters moderator had asked the audience not to clap until the debate's end. Decrying the $12 billion the United States spends each month in Iraq, she concluded, "We can't afford this war any longer. We have to start moving troops out now."

The fiery Moloney, a retired liquor store owner who has made a second career out of bashing Lantos and losing elections to him, drew appreciative guffaws when he noted that Bush had managed to virtually unite longtime enemies Iraq and Iran - with the United States as a common foe.

He predicted Bush would try to invade Iran next, and said he's the candidate best equipped to stand up to the president.

"A vote for Moloney is a vote for preventing World War III and Holocaust Two," he shouted in his closing remarks.

Greg Conlon, a former president of the California Public Utilities Commission who was tapped by local Republican leaders to provide an alternative to Moloney, said he's the candidate for those voters who want to leave Iraq "with honor, not with haste."

"We've got a lot invested," Conlon said. "To walk away today without any plan for how Iraq and the Middle East are going to be stabilized ... would be foolish."

He warned that instability in the region could squeeze America's oil supply, driving gas prices up to $5 or $6 a gallon.

Barry Hermanson, who helped lead San Francisco's victorious living wage campaign in 2003, said that might not be such a bad thing.

"There's an old joke about how did our oil get under their sand," Hermanson said. "Yes, we need that oil to maintain our current lifestyle. ... But I believe we need to break our addiction to oil."

Hermanson, McMurry and Speier generally agreed on the need to slow global warming, include tighter environmental standards in foreign trade agreements, get out of Iraq and expand health care coverage. But while her fellow liberals took adamant stances, McMurry, a health policy expert, argued for a more measured, bipartisan approach to legislation.

Democrats' demands for a single-payer, universal health care system have gotten nowhere in 60 years, McMurry said. She proposed a gradual phase-in, starting with government-assisted coverage for children and then raising the cutoff age while including other groups such as small business employees.

On the last subject of the night, education, Speier got the biggest laughs with her quick response to Moloney's criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

"You're unfair in your assessment of our great speaker," Speier said, "and she's not going to give you a good committee assignment if you keep talking like that."

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