Friday, April 4, 2008 | In the end, the largest applause of the first full mayoral debate of the election season wasn’t won by Mayor Jerry Sanders or businessman Steve Francis. It was incited by the 25-year-old in a white t-shirt sitting between them, the guy who said he lives off of about $6,000 a year and boasts a head of robust dreadlocks that fall down nearly to his waist.

The question: How much public money should be spent on keeping the Chargers in town?

The answer from Eric Bidwell: “Is this really what America and this city have come to that we have no better things to talk about than football?” If they can’t find a chunk of land and throw a ball around, he said, well, that’s life.

That the resounding applause that followed was the night’s largest could be due to Bidwell’s charisma. Or it could speak to the relative disinterest that has greeted this year’s mayoral race to date. Regardless, it seemed to be the winning moment in a night in which the leading candidates stuck to their few talking points, broke little new ground and offered few political punches, whether the topic was city finances, illegal immigration or water.

For the sitting mayor, it was his first debate of the season. Sanders opened up by reminding the audience of city government’s condition 28 months ago when he first took office. There were numerous investigations going on, he said, and the city didn’t even know how many employees it had.

“We were in the midst of the worst financial crisis the city ever had,” Sanders said.

He rattled off a list of efforts he’s spearheaded — boosting infrastructure investment, getting four audits out in one year and leading statewide water efforts — and said he needed four more years to continue the task.

For Francis, it was the first time he was able to debate Sanders face to face after already spending more than $1.3 million of his own funds on his campaign, the centerpiece of which has been an unprecedented television blitz.

Francis tried to hit the mayor wherever he could, criticizing him for not taking part in a federal program that would allow local police officers to go after suspected illegal immigrants, for moving slowly in repairing the financial problems, and for having too many press conferences.

He also said the mayor didn’t have a financial plan, simply a forecast — one that showed sizable deficits.

Sanders at times responded tersely to his challenger. On immigration, he said the federal program that Francis wanted to take part in was a failed one and only distracted police officers from their true responsibilities.

“Would you rather have them responding to a burglary at your home or picking up someone in front of Home Depot?” he asked.

Likewise, he thought Francis didn’t have much of a plan, either. “My opponent Mr. Francis has never put out a plan. He complains about not liking the way it’s being done,” Sanders said.

For the most part, neither strayed far from their primary campaign message. Sanders talked about keeping what he started going. Francis talked about sanitizing City Hall of the stench of special interests.

The debate, sponsored by the Rancho Penasquitos Town Council and Rancho Bernardo Community Council, was one of only a handful that Sanders has agreed to participate in leading up to the June 3 primary. Thus, in a campaign in which the candidates have rolled out few new proposals so far, it was a rare opportunity to see the candidates tossing around ideas.

Candidate James Hart injected some new themes into the debate: limiting the population and fighting global warming. He suggested switching to a four-day work week in order to cut down on burning fossil fuels. Conserving fuel will be important, he said, because of Venezuela is cracking down on exports to the United States. Also, he said, San Diegans shouldn’t have to drink recycled water, as is proposed now, simply because developers want to keep building homes and grow San Diego.

Floyd Morrow, who carries the Democratic Party endorsement and served on the City Council in the 1960s and 1970s, boasted experience as his primary tool, noting that he served the city for 14 years. He said that in his day, the city was well run. And he wasn’t too impressed with Sanders’ term.

“In two years I haven’t seen much change except for maybe the potholes have gotten bigger,” Morrow said.

Bidwell, the crowd favorite, said that despite his jokes — which had the mayor red-faced and snickering — he was a serious candidate. He spoke frequently about getting more people involved in the political process, as well pushing the city to improve on its water conservation and public transit.

“I’m here to offer something different,” Bidwell said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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