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Friday’s debate was one of the more anticipated dates of San Diego’s 2012 mayoral campaign.

For the first time, the race’s four major candidates shared the stage, all appearing at an hour-long debate sponsored by conservative business organizations.

Would the quartet use the opportunity to go after each other over their divergent visions for the city? Not really.

Instead, the debate allowed City Councilman Carl DeMaio, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Congressman Bob Filner and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher to deliver the same talking points they’ve honed over the campaign’s first six months. The main difference on Friday? They made their points while standing next to each other.

But when the sharp elbows did come out, they weren’t pointed at the candidates you might expect.

DeMaio didn’t face many direct attacks, which was curious. A common tactic is to go after the guy in first. Even though it’s early, everyone seems to agree DeMaio’s that guy. But the remaining candidates allowed DeMaio to go through his San Diego-remains-in-a-fiscal-crisis platform without a scratch. A couple times, he held up his 80-page financial plan for effect.

DeMaio, Dumanis and Fletcher also resisted the urge to play to the crowd by going after Filner. The lone Democrat in the race, Filner not only opposes a pension reform initiative beloved by the groups sponsoring the debate, but also has referred to it as “fraud.” Yet the only time Filner received a real bump was when he knocked into a table behind his podium.

Instead, the biggest hits came against Dumanis and Fletcher. They went after each other and DeMaio took on them both. This approach could represent a political calculus. San Diegans tend to elect moderate Republicans. See Sanders, Jerry. Dumanis and Fletcher fit that bill.

So the debate showed us what the other candidates believe are Dumanis and Fletcher’s weaknesses. For Dumanis, it’s her $200k-plus pension.

Fletcher scored the line of the night when he responded to a question about Dumanis’ pledge to donate her $100,000 mayoral salary to charity.

“I will give my salary, in its entirety, to the charity of Bonnie’s choice, if she’ll give me her pension,” Fletcher said to guffaws from the crowd.

DeMaio took a similar tack in knocking her pledge.

“I think what’s far more important is turning down the lavish politician pension package in the city of San Diego,” he said.

Fletcher’s weakness, the other candidates believe, is redevelopment. The assemblyman played an instrumental role in a midnight redevelopment deal that would have delivered billions in future property tax dollars downtown at the expense of state school funding.

DeMaio went the strongest after Fletcher with an open government argument. He said was “offended” there was little public debate before the redevelopment law was passed.

“Of course, the argument is that the politicians had us covered,” DeMaio said. “Well, I feel a lot better.”

Dumanis and Fletcher tried to defend themselves. Dumanis said she earned her retirement after three decades in public service and added she never held a public office that set pension costs. Fletcher delivered a practiced response that emphasized results over process. But he also admitted that his plan ultimately backfired after redevelopment’s elimination.

“If I had known (Gov.) Jerry Brown was going to go out and eliminate redevelopment I probably wouldn’t have put myself through that,” Fletcher said.

Dumanis and Fletcher fared better when they gave their closing statements. Both need to carve out their differences because their views occupy the same space in the San Diego’s political middle.

Their speeches emphasized what they believe is their biggest strength. For Dumanis, it’s her experience.

“What I bring to the table is you know me,” Dumanis said. “I’ve been your district attorney for nine years. You’ve shined a light on me for nine years. I may not be practiced. I may not be polished. But I am proven.”

For Fletcher, it’s the break from the past he says he represents.

“Most importantly, we will turn the page on the problems of the last decade,” he said. “We’ll close the chapter on the Enron-by-the-Sea era and we’ll take all the energy that went into that and we’ll channel it into moving forward into a bright future.”

Over the next few months, San Diegans will have plenty more opportunities to see all the candidates together. Wednesday night, the Urban Land Institute is holding a forum on real estate and land use policy. And if you missed Friday’s debate, San Diego Rostra has the full video.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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