Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Kevin De León face off, cordially

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The two California candidates for United States Senate, Kevin de León and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sat down to a moderated conversation yesterday in what is set to be the only public discussion between the candidates before the November 6 election.

Held at San Francisco’s Public Policy Institute of California, the event was not billed as a formal debate, but the two Democrats butted heads over what kind of leadership the party needs to bring to Washington.

De León has been a sharp critic of Sen. Feinstein, painting her as a representative of the “status quo.” He suggested that Feinstein’s seniority leaves her out of touch with where the party stands today.

Conversely, Sen. Feinstein framed her seniority as valuable, demonstrating that her 25 years in the senate gives her the know-how necessary to get things done in Washington.

KCRW’s Madeleine Brand spoke with analysts, Paul Mitchell and Jeremy White, to discuss the debate on Press Play. Both agreed that while the debate was cordial, both sides took quiet jabs at their opponent.

According to White, who covers California politics for Politico, viewers saw De León “implicitly go after Sen. Feinstein,” but without “directly invoking her.”

Feinstein, on the other hand, implied a sense of naiveté on De León’s part, reminding viewers that it was easy for De León to pass legislation in California due to a Democratic super majority in Sacramento.

Sen. Feinstein was “chiding De León on about the political process,” said White.

If Feinstein took the path of authority, De León adopted a more campaign-like approach. He told stories about his constituents, and repeated talking points, tying his own experience as the son of an immigrant to the bigger story of the American Dream.

Mitchell, who is the Vice President of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data firm, said he recognized the difficulty that De León faces in this race.

According to Mitchell, De León’s status as Senate President Pro Tem means that he will not “be able to go out there and really light this race on fire.”

Lighting this race on fire may be the only thing that could save the election for De León. Despite his endorsement from the Democratic party, De León has had trouble closing the gap in the polls, where he trails Sen. Feinstein by double digit points.

But De León may be taking the long view. “He has a long political career ahead of him,” said Mitchell. The more opportunities De León has to broadcast his stances, the better able he may be to position himself as the new kind of leader the Democrats need.

De León has tried for such opportunities, challenging Feinstein to three debates, but Feinstein has declined the invitation.