Thursday, May 1, 2008 | On a contentious day in the race to decide San Diego’s next mayor in which the two leading candidates each took turns attacking each other, a few minor questions were answered at an afternoon mayoral debate at the University of San Diego.

Could challenger Steve Francis draw laughs by referencing F-gate and Mayor Jerry Sanders’ use of words that “haven’t been G-rated”? No. About 175 people sat in an awkward silence when he tried. Would the two candidates shake hands in the first debate after the incident? Yes, with exaggerated smiles on their faces.

But beyond the F-gate flap that commenced a public back-and-forth between the two candidates, Wednesday’s mayoral debate offered a glimpse of Sanders as a candidate on the attack. After spending the early campaign defending his record against Francis and his steady supply of television ads, the mayor went on the attack Wednesday. With absentee voting starting next week and his campaign at a financial disadvantage, Sanders began swinging back against his leading challenger in a morning press conference and the ensuing debate.

At the debate, the incumbent mayor’s comments featured his typical citations of progress in restoring the city’s financial health, but they also were laced with sarcasm and attacks of his own, as he attempted to put Francis on the defense.

Well into the debate, when asked for thoughts about the future of Lindbergh Field, Francis offered a noncommittal response, saying that demolishing and moving the airport’s terminals to the north side of the airport’s runway was “something that should be considered.” But he largely took the opportunity to criticize Sanders for appointing former state senator Steve Peace to a committee working to decide Lindbergh’s future.

To which Sanders responded: “Steve, I want to congratulate you on your coaching. You’ve been on message and you haven’t answered a question yet.”

Those jabs continued throughout the debate. Sanders on the Francis campaign: “Deceptively slick.” On special interest contributions to campaigns: “Now he’s telling us that’s what’s destroying things, after he participated in it.” On trying to find a word to describe Francis: “Hypocrite seems to come to mind.”

At the debate sponsored by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and San Diego County Taxpayers Association, Francis continued emphasizing his candidacy’s themes: transparency, having a vision for the city and eliminating the influence of special interests. He challenged Sanders to agree to stop taking political donations from special interest groups. Sanders agreed, on the condition that Francis, who is spending millions of his own dollars on his campaign, shuts his checkbook. “You don’t buy a lot of influence for $320,” Sanders said, referencing the city’s donation limit.

Francis pointed, however, to a political action committee called San Diegans for City Hall Reform. It was the vehicle by which groups advocated for Sanders’ financial reform ballot initiatives in November 2006. Sanders said the committee has disbanded, but it continued to raise thousands of dollars after the election from donors with business in front of City Hall, even though the group had no stated cause.

The committee was the focus of a Wednesday afternoon press conference that Francis held. He dubbed the committee, managed by Sanders’ political consultant Tom Shepard, “the biggest pay-to-play system the city has ever seen.”

Francis, though, was one of the committee’s supporters, donating $10,000 in March 2006.

“When I saw this was nothing but a scheme to promote Jerry Sanders, that’s when I walked away,” Francis said in an afternoon interview.

He continued to spend money promoting the initiatives, however, paying for $100,000 worth of radio spots up until Election Day. Francis suggested those expenditures were different. “I didn’t put that money through the system,” he said.

Those following the campaign said the increasingly testy exchanges between the candidates were a product of the absentee ballot voting that begins Monday.

“People generally don’t pay much attention until voting starts,” said John Kern, a political consultant not involved in the mayor’s race. “When you look strategically, Francis has spent his money on all this stuff, and now is the time when push comes to shove.”

Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University, said he believed Sanders’ campaign appeared to have started in earnest because the month-long battle before the June 3 primary was what the mayor could afford. Sparrow said he was not surprised by the negative tone the campaign had taken.

“It’s a tactic that is used most often by the person who has less money and is behind or is being closed upon rapidly,” he said. “Given the fact that Sanders doesn’t have any chance of coming close to matching the amount of money (Francis is spending), in the view of campaign consultants, that’s the way he has to play it.”

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