Monday night saw the first debate for Dianne Feinstein’s former Senate seat, where Katie Porter and Adam Schiff took center stage, while Barbara Lee fought to stay in the game, and Republican Steve Garvey stumbled in his attempts to not seem like he was a Republican.

How “already here” is the 2024 election? Just six weeks from today, Californians will be heading to the polls to vote in the March 5 primary election. Presumably, President Biden, Donald Trump, and Nancy Pelosi have their primary wins already in the bag, so the race for Dianne Feinstein’s former Senate seat is the notable election that day. Rep. Adam Schiff seems to be in the lead, and depending on what poll you believe, Rep. Katie Porter is in second place, or maybe Republican Steve Garvey is, with East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee a close fourth.  (The Top Two will advance to a November 5 face-off.)

So Monday night’s debate between the four of them, seen above in its 90-minute entirety, was crucial, with Politico moderator Melanie Mason correctly noting that this “will likely be the most competitive race for the U.S. Senate that California has seen in decades.”

The odd person out was obviously long-retired L.A. Dodger Steve Garvey, the only Republican on stage, who waffled embarrassingly on whether he was supporting Trump. (He obviously is! But he didn’t want to say it.) Garvey spent nearly ten minutes avoiding commitment on whether he supported the former president's reelection bid, saying his opponents were “trying to paint me into the corner, trying to call me MAGA. I’m my own man. I make my own decisions” (which drew laughter from the audience).“When the time comes, I'll do exactly what I said to you. I will look at the two opponents. I will determine what they did and at that time, I will make my choice.”

And in a true inside-baseball reference, he said to Katie Porter, “You’re banging on that trash can, just like the Astros did years ago,” a line so obviously pre-conceived that his campaign had a graphic for it ready to launch while the debate was still in progress.

Porter zinged back, “Once a Dodger, always a Dodger,” and added, “Ballots go out in six weeks, Mr. Garvey. This is not the minor leagues. Who will you vote for?”

Barbara Lee hit Garvey on this too, saying, “I believe our Republican opponent here on this stage has voted for Donal Trump twice. That agenda is an agenda to dismantle our democracy.”

Adam Schiff used it as a chance to burnish his impeachment and January 6 Commission credentials, telling the audience, “When our country was threatened by a would-be dictator in the Oval Office, one of us stepped up to the middle of that fight.  I took on the president, I investigated him, I led his impeachment.”

Schiff also taunted Garvey with “I can understand you don’t want to alienate MAGA world by saying you’re against him, but you also won’t stand up to him.”

On the economy, Barbara Lee used her own biography as once having been unhoused to show she understood those feeling the sting of income inequality and inflation.

“I was on public assistance, food stamps, Medi-Cal, raising two little boys as a single mom,” Lee said. “I know what it means to not have a place to live. I was unhoused during a very difficult period of my life.” She was the only one on stage to bring up, “We have to make college tuition free.”

Whereas Porter stuck with her whiteboard crusader against Corporate America persona, saying the current economy only benefited “CEOs of gigantic corporations, and people who have generations of inherited wealth." Porter reiterated she would “stand up to corporate power,”  singling out Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, and insurance companies that deny claims.

The most divisive issue of the night, without question, was the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. And Schiff was the most hard-line supporter of Israel among the Dems. “I think the United States should support Israel in defending itself,” Schiff said, though he threw in the qualifier, "We also should work with Israel to reduce the number of civilian casualties.”

But in terms of a ceasefire, Schiff contested that “I don’t know how you can ask any nation to cease fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization.”

Lee brought up her own credentials as an early opponent to the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions to  unapologetically support a ceasefire. “It can spiral out of control,” she told the crowd. “You can see what’s happening in the region. We have to make sure that our national security is also protected.”

Porter had a more complex, but effective comeback. “Ceasefire is not a magic word. You can’t say it and make it so,” she said. “We have to push as the United States, as a world leader, for us to get to a ceasefire and to avoid a forever war.” But she added the conditions that the October 7 hostages had to be released, Gaza had to be rebuilt, Israel secured, and called for “free state for Palestinians where they can thrive.”

Another memorable exchange came on the state’s homelessness crisis, where Garvey tried some kind of George W. Bush “compassionate conservative” line.

“When was the last time any of you went to the inner city, and actually walked up to the homeless as I have over the last three weeks?” he charged at his opponents. “I went up to them and touched them and listened to them, and you know what? They looked at me and said ‘This is the first time that anyone’s come up to us and asked us about our life.’”

But Barbara Lee teed off on him. “That’s so patronizing. As someone who’s been unsheltered, I cannot believe how he described his walk and 'touching,' and being there with the homeless. Come on, please!”

Schiff riffed on that one too. “Mr Garvey, I’m sorry, that was a total swing and a miss. That was a total whiff.”

Again, this is a race for the Top Two, and Schiff would probably love nothing more than for Garvey to finish in the Top Two. Schiff could likely then cakewalk to victory in November, whereas Porter or Lee would give him a much tougher fight in largely Democratic California.

But polling still consistently shows about 25% of California voters as still undecided in this race, so any movement there is likely to affect the outcome. There will be another debate Monday, February 12, and another one later in February.

Related: Adam Schiff Edging Out Katie Porter for the Former Feinstein Senate Seat, But ‘Undecided’ is Crushing the Field [SFist]

Images: KTTV, FOX 11 Los Angeles