In a fiery debate that underscored both California’s generational political shift and Donald J. Trump’s enduring influence even over liberal political races, three of the state’s best known congressional Democrats and a Republican ex-baseball star faced off over a U.S. Senate seat on Monday in Los Angeles.

Representatives Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, and Steve Garvey, a Republican who played first base decades ago for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, have polled the highest among more than two dozen candidates seeking the seat that was long held by Senator Dianne Feinstein.

All have been campaigning for months; Ms. Porter has been running for more than a year. But their televised showdown at the University of Southern California marked an opening salvo to the 2024 election. There were swipes. There were pile-ons. Sports metaphors abounded.

Here are five takeaways from the debate.

Few seats are safer for Democrats than this one. Registered Republicans make up less than a quarter of California’s electorate, and the state has shifted significantly to the left since Ms. Feinstein was first elected in 1992.

Onstage, the Democrats strained to differentiate themselves from each other, and vied to denounce former President Trump, whose toxicity in liberal California supplied some of the evening’s most passionate exchanges.

Ms. Lee, a longtime progressive, reminded voters that, in 2001, she was the only member of Congress to vote against military force in Afghanistan and that she was among the plaintiffs against Mr. Trump in a civil suit for damages related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Mr. Schiff, a former federal prosecutor and one-time member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, sought to quell criticism from his left and right and to frame himself as the natural successor of Ms. Feinstein, a Democrat known for her moderate stances. He pointed to his endorsement by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his 12 terms in Congress and his role as the lead impeachment manager during former President Trump’s first trial. “Californians want someone who delivers,” he said repeatedly.

Seeking to carve out a liberal middle lane, Ms. Porter, a minivan-driving Orange County mother of three and former law professor, leaned on her image as a kitchen table wonk — an everywoman who sees clearly how government, for better and worse, affects Californians.

She took issue with Ms. Lee, vowing to end the practice of returning money to constituents through earmarks. She jabbed at Mr. Schiff, who is leading in fund-raising and polls, declaring: “I am the only elected official on this stage who has never taken corporate PAC money.” Another Trump stint in the White House would “set us back decades, in terms of diplomacy.”

Even Mr. Garvey, the Republican, sought to distance himself from his party’s MAGA establishment, which is deeply unpopular with the majority of California voters, asserting that election results should be accepted. When asked on what he and his party differed, he half-jokingly replied: “Just about everything.”

Ms. Feinstein was 90 when she died in September. In the final years of her term, her long and distinguished record of public service was eclipsed by a wrenching national furor over her health and cognitive acuity. Ms. Lee is 77, Mr. Garvey is 75 and Mr. Schiff is 63.

Only Ms. Porter, who just turned 50, referred to it directly, but the balance between experienced representation and gerontocracy was a clear subtext. Several questions focused on generational concerns such as student debt and the state’s high price of housing.

After Mr. Garvey referred to the Democrats as “career politicians,” Ms. Porter, who was elected to Congress in 2019, seized the opportunity to point to several differences between her and her colleagues.

“I know I’m the youngest person on this stage, but my career didn’t just last five years,” she said.

On college campuses across the country, the war in Gaza has become a flashpoint between liberal students who otherwise agree on progressive values and policies. Before the debate, students with Jewish Voice for Peace passed out fliers demanding a cease-fire outside Bovard Auditorium, the debate venue. After the event, a crowd of about 100 protesters chanted “Cease-fire now!” as audience members left.

Onstage, Ms. Lee was the only candidate to take up their call. “The only way Israel is going to be secure is through a permanent cease-fire,” she said. She drew a direct line from the Sept. 11 terror attacks — and her warnings at the time against a U.S. invasion — cautioning that the current conflict could “spiral out of control” and embroil America in another war.

The other Democratic candidates gave more measured responses, in which they called for a reduction in casualties in the conflict, but said Israel had a right to defend itself. Recent polls have shown a sharp split on the issue among California voters, along age and ideological lines.

“It is not, in my view, incompatible with human nature to grieve the loss of both innocent Palestinians as well as innocent Israelis,” Mr. Schiff said. “But Israel has to defend itself.”

Ms. Porter said that she had called for a “permanent cease-fire,” but only after other conditions have been met.

Mr. Garvey pledged unequivocal support for Israel, “for whatever their needs are.”

Mr. Garvey was revered by Southern Californians when he played baseball, but his political inexperience more than three decades later was painful to witness on Monday. Mr. Garvey, who has never held public office, insisted he had taken “strong positions” on border control and policing, but that he was “new” and “needed to explore California.” He promised he would soon release more detailed policies.

Pressured for one long stretch of the debate to say whom he would vote for as president if Mr. Trump wins the Republican nomination, Mr. Garvey refused to answer, saying only that he did not believe that President Biden had been “good for this country.”

“Once a Dodger, always a dodger,” Ms. Porter snapped as Ms. Lee wondered aloud if Mr. Garvey had forgotten about Jan. 6 and Mr. Schiff demanded to know what it would take for him to openly criticize his party’s leader, who is facing multiple criminal indictments.

At another point, Mr. Garvey asked his opponents when they had last visited “the inner city” and touted recent campaign stops during which he had met homeless individuals. That drew scathing responses from Mr. Schiff and Ms. Lee, who pointed out that she once was homeless and whose Oakland district includes some of the state’s poorest urban stretches.

“You were a hell of a ballplayer,” Mr. Schiff said, but “that was a swing and a miss.”

Under California’s open primary system, voters will narrow the field on March 5 to two top vote-getters, regardless of their party, who will face off in November. In California, that system has led to two Democrats vying in a general election, as was the case in 2018 when Ms. Feinstein won re-election over a former Democratic state legislative leader.

Before Mr. Garvey entered the race, it seemed likely that the two Democratic polling leaders, Mr. Schiff and Ms. Porter, would face each other this November. But Mr. Garvey’s sports celebrity has drawn interest in recent weeks, and surveys suggest he may consolidate enough Republican votes to advance to the runoff.

That would be good news for Mr. Schiff, the front-runner in a heavily Democratic electorate, but bad news for Ms. Porter, who has been locked in a tight race for second place in the polls with Mr. Garvey. On Monday, she hammered Mr. Garvey’s vague answers and attacked Mr. Schiff, charging that campaign contributions from oil, cable and pharmaceutical companies that he had accepted were “dirty money.”

Mr. Schiff shot back that as a fellow Democrat supporting her campaigns for Congress, he had donated some of his war chest to her. “And the only response I got was, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

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