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US Senate candidates spar in debate over who can best lead

Aiming to differentiate themselves for California voters, U.S. Senate candidates Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez sharply criticized each other's experience, leadership and stands on major issues during their only scheduled general election debate Wednesday night.

Their different styles were in full display in the hour-long televised event, with Sanchez' pugnacious and combative manner contrasting with Harris' aggressive and prosecutorial bearing as they took on each other's record.

The debate at California State University, Los Angeles, represented voters' single opportunity to see the candidates side-by-side before mail ballots begin arriving next week and polls open on Nov. 8.

Harris, the state attorney general, and Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman, are competing for the seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, who is retiring after two and a half decades in Congress.

Harris has been leading by wide margins in the polls, backed by endorsements from President Obama and the California Democratic Party. Sanchez, who has been shifting to the right in a bid to attract Republicans, had hopes the debate would help her make up ground against Harris. 

Here's where the candidates said they stood on the issues:

Criminal sentencing

The two Democrats staked out similar positions on issues such as abortion — both said they support a woman's right to choose and the reclassification of marijuana to a less restrictive controlled substance category — but they parted company on issues like Proposition 57, the state ballot measure that would open parole to more felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Sanchez said the measure would allow someone who gave a gun to a gang to go free and criticized Harris' role in helping draft the ballot measure. "She has failed to protect Californians as the attorney general," Sanchez charged.

Harris has not taken positions on ballot measures, but said non-violent offenses carrying strict sentences have contributed to the incarceration of large numbers of young black and Latino males.

Harris attacked Sanchez' vote to support legislation in 2005 that shields gun manufacturers from certain lawsuits when a weapon is used in crimes. The measure overrode a California law that had allowed gun violence victims to sue manufacturers for practices deemed unsafe.

Sanchez had said previously that the law simply protected law-abiding companies from being sued when their products are misused.

Immigration reform

Both Harris and Sanchez declared their support for immigration reform, which Sanchez called the "moral imperative of our time." The two agreed that the country should create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

Harris took the opportunity to point out her endorsement by the United Farm Workers and labor leader Dolores Huerta. Sanchez cited her own endorsement from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been a leader in Congress on immigration reform.

College debt and tuition

Cal State LA student Kayla Stamps said students told her they don't trust politicians and feel their vote doesn't matter. She asked the candidates how would they encourage the students to vote.

Harris said she had been listening to students and that they deserve representatives to prioritize their issues, including high tuition and college debt.

That drew a response from Sanchez that "talk is cheap." She said she had already helped establish free tuition at Santa Ana Community College.

The two candidates had sharply different views regarding for-profit universities, which critics say have left many students mired in debt and lacking college degrees.

Harris cited her role in bringing about the closure of Corinthian Colleges, a large for-profit network of campuses. The operation was forced to shut down after California and the federal government accused it of predatory and deceptive practices in targeting low-income students and the U.S. Department of Education fined Corinthian $30 million.

Harris criticized Sanchez for accepting thousands in campaign contributions from for-profit universities, among them a donation from Corinthian. But the congresswoman said Harris paints with a broad brush in accusing all for-profit colleges of cheating or fraud. 

"My opponent has gone after the entire industry and she is so wrong," according to Sanchez. She said many students need for-profit colleges to provide vocational training in such areas as mechanics or IT.

Getting the job done

Some of the sharpest moments in the debate came when Harris criticized Sanchez' attendance record in Congress. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill news organization, recently reported Sanchez missed the most votes for much of September when compared to other House members seeking another office.

"I think it is important that you show up and that’s the kind of leadership that California wants," Harris said.

Sanchez has given one reason for missing votes: she has been busy campaigning in a very large state. She has also said that she does not miss major votes.

Los Angeles resident Rene Romero attended the debate hoping to decide who to vote for in the Senate race, and left feeling that the night lacked substance:

"I always kind of go into any debates thinking that my mind will be changed and then when I leave I’m kind of always, kind of disappointed. So I’m still undecided," he said.

Mail ballots will be sent out starting next week, then Romero and other California voters have less than five weeks to make a decision.

Voters can watch a

 via Cal State LA's YouTube channel. The Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, ABC7 and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund presented the debate. 

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.