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Jerry McNerney, democrat incumbant nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 11th Congressional District. Photographed in Martinez, Calif. on Wednesday, August 25, 2010. (Sherry LaVars/Staff)

TRACY -- An old-fashioned raucous political debate rocked this small western San Joaquin suburb as rivals for the 11th Congressional District stumped for votes in a standing-room-only elementary school gymnasium.

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney and rival GOP nominee David Harmer appeared Saturday night during the feisty Tracy Press-sponsored candidate event before a highly charged and irrepressible audience of roughly 300 to 400 people. American Independent candidate David Christensen also participated.

It was the first and only live audience showdown between the two major party candidates in a race that may well factor in the Republicans' quest to retake control of the House of Representatives. The 11th District is the most competitive California Congressional race and one of 40 or more House races nationwide on the parties' radar.

In Tracy, the rowdy crowd waved signs, booed, cheered, repeatedly disrupted the candidates, punched air horns and even blew an obnoxious whistle meant to pierce a sports field, not a political debate. And they showed up in great numbers despite the downpour outside and the San Francisco Giants' league championship game on television.

But if the volume and the prevalence of pro-Harmer or McNerney stickers was any indication, most of the audience members came with their minds already made up.

With high audience participation, the event quickly became part theater and part debate, and in both categories, Harmer and McNerney showed their strengths and weaknesses.


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Harmer, an attorney from San Ramon, displayed his legal training and keen intellect in well-crafted statements, but he sometimes spoke so quickly and used such complex sentences that people had trouble keeping up with him.

McNerney got fired up about his support of legislation to restrict outsourcing of jobs, even pounding his fist on the table, but he faltered under withering reaction from the GOP side of the audience -- boos, derisive laughs and sarcastic call-outs -- to some of his comments.

A wind turbine engineer and a Ph.D. mathematician, public speaking is not one of McNerney's strengths.

In one of the sharpest exchanges, Harmer chastised his opponent's listing of federal dollars he brought to the district.

"I'm sure I could boost my popularity if I wrote a few billion in hot checks," Harmer said, referring to the popularity of congressional earmarks, a process by which members bring money back home to their districts. "This is the gateway drug to out-of-control federal spending. It's why we are in the federal predicament we're in."

Harmer repeatedly drove home his top priority, reduction of federal spending and the deficit, changes he says will turn American's economy around. He pledged to oppose tax hikes and seek an end to earmarks.

"It's time to stop growing the federal government and start growing the economy," Harmer said.

McNerney emphasized his work with communities in his district including his successful campaign for a new veterans hospital in the Central Valley, which will eventually provide 900 jobs. He also listed his "Congress on the Corner," a series of 60 sessions throughout the district where he met and talked with constituents.

"My opponent is talking about ideology while I am talking about people," McNerney said. "I am running for Congress because I am inspired to help people."

The men agreed on one thing -- the economy is the No. 1 worry among the district's voters.

But they differ wildly on how to fix the nation's persistent unemployment rate, a number that is even higher in portions of the 11th District.

McNerney endorsed legislation designed to punish businesses that send their jobs overseas and called for the implementation of policies that provide tax breaks for companies that keep their workers in the United States. He also advocated for increased small business access to affordable credit and increased investment in domestic green technology jobs.

"Right here in this valley, we could become the center for energy technology development," McNerney said. " ... We can make San Joaquin the center of economic development in this state."

Government should get out the business of business, Harmer countered.

"When McNerney was elected, unemployment was 5 percent," Harmer said. "It's now double that nationally ... and more than that in this district. That is no coincidence. Under Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and the Democratic majority, seldom a month goes by without legislation or regulation that is hostile to business, and it has had its effect."

Both men support an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, which will expire next year unless Congress takes action. President Barack Obama proposes ending the tax cuts on the wealthy.

McNerney called the economy too fragile to support any tax hikes, while Harmer said his opponent's stance runs counter to his favorable votes on prior budgets.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, www.ibabuzz.com/politics or at Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.