ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- Republicans who want Gov. Jerry Brown's job clashed over gun rights and the direction of the GOP in their first and possibly only joint appearance in a low-visibility primary campaign.
Lagging in polls and with less than three weeks until California's June 3 election, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari leveled a series of pointed attacks on fellow Republican Tim Donnelly, a state assemblyman and tea party favorite. He said Donnelly had denigrated Hispanics, blacks and Jews, and suggested Donnelly couldn't beat the Democratic governor after alienating a broad swath of state voters.
Republican voter registration has fallen to 28.5 percent in California, and “if we keep shrinking, we are never going to win another election,” Kashkari warned. Democrats hold every statewide office and 43.5 percent of California voter registration.
Donnelly, who has held an edge over Kashkari in voter polls, dismissed the criticism as the desperation of a struggling candidate.
“They only attack you when you are the front-runner,” Donnelly said. “The only colors that matter to me are red, white and blue, because those are the colors of freedom.”
The contest pits the moderate Kashkari, a former banker who in the Bush administration helped lead the federal bank bailout, against Donnelly, who is best known for his opposition to gun control and any softening of immigration laws.
Brown, seeking an unprecedented fourth term, has held a commanding edge in polls and fundraising so far. Under California's election rules, all the candidates appear on a single primary ballot, regardless of party, and the top two finishers then advance to the November general election. With Brown appearing well ahead of the field, the fight is for second place on June 3.
As recently as last month, polls found many California voters don't recognize either of Brown's leading rivals. And with Brown in a commanding position, state Republican leaders have said they are unlikely to invest time or money in the race.
Thursday's 90-minute showdown on KFI-AM's “John and Ken Show,” which was aired live, gave both candidates a chance to make an impression with the popular program's conservative-leaning audience.
Donnelly, 48, at first appeared hesitant to criticize Kashkari, even when asked directly to describe his rival's flaws. He eventually belittled Kashkari's string of prominent endorsements, including from former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and prodded the former banker for voting for President Barack Obama in 2008.
Kashkari, 40, took a more aggressive tack. He argued that a Donnelly proposal that would shift responsibility for issuing concealed weapons permits from local law enforcement agencies to the state Department of Justice could limit gun rights, concentrating power over them with Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat.
The conservative legislator was recently scolded by some leading Republicans after he began trying to link Kashkari, who is Indian-American and Hindu, to Islamic Shariah law. Donnelly has said he was only “asking questions” about his opponent.
Questioned by an audience member, he didn't back away. Donnelly has repeatedly said Kashkari supported Shariah banking code when he was a senior official at the Treasury Department in 2008. On Facebook, Donnelly posted a link to a banking seminar hosted by the department during which Kashkari delivered opening remarks.
“Why would we want to be compliant to anything Shariah?” Donnelly asked.
Kashkari said the seminar involved discussions of business law, with a goal to promote free markets around the world, not advocacy for Shariah banking rules.
“You should be ashamed,” he told Donnelly.
Donnelly has a history of controversial remarks. He drew attention in March for a tweet that compared President Barack Obama's gun control policies with those of dictators such as Adolf Hitler and North Korea's Kim Jong Il. In May, he was the lone vote against a bill to ban state-run shops from selling or displaying images of the Confederate flag. Donnelly's supporters argue such positions offer a sharp contrast with Brown.
The governor was a point of agreement. He was frequently criticized by both candidates as well hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, who said Brown snubbed an invitation to appear with the Republicans on the show. They used a skeleton, attired in a tie and with furry eyebrows, for a stand-in.