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SAN FRANCISCO – A relatively tame California gubernatorial debate is in the books and all three Republican candidates emerged largely unscathed with the state’s recall election looming.

Thursday’s Inside California Politics Governor Recall Debate was the latest meeting of candidates running to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the Sept. 14 election. And there appeared to be plenty of common ground for Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley.

They touched on topics ranging from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to homelessness to infrastructure, among other issues.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the night’s debate that stood out:

Pandemic and vaccines

As the pandemic continues to surge in California and throughout much of the U.S., vaccines took center stage in the early portion of Thursday night’s debate.

All three candidates asserted that they’ve gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. They also offered similar takes opposing vaccination mandates in California, as has been put into place for certain industries under Newsom, including health care workers as well as school teachers and staff.

Faulconer said he got the vaccine as soon as he was eligible and that his family and children also are vaccinated. He argued that vaccinations are the way to end the pandemic, but pushed back on what he called Newsom’s “one-size-fits-all” policy being handed down from Sacramento.

“I clearly want – and I’ve been outspoken about this for a long time – every part of California and every county is different,” he said. “Let our local health officials make the determination based on the facts on the ground. What we have seen from this governor is a one-size-fits-all policy and that’s not going to work.”

Cox, also vaccinated, said he’s against vaccine mandates, calling them “an intrusion of our liberty.”

“The problem with a lot of people not wanting to be vaccinated is, frankly, their lack of trust in government,” Cox said. “Gavin Newsom exemplifies that. He raises money for his wife’s charity; he gives out no-bid contracts; he famously went to the French Laundry in violation of his own rules. We have to make sure people respect and trust their leaders.”

Kiley promised that he would bring “a new approach of trust” to the process.

“It would be hard to imagine a greater recipe for distrust than the one Gavin Newsom has followed,” he said.

What about Trump?

Former President Donald Trump continues to loom large over the Republican Party. As the likely GOP frontrunner heading into 2024, all three gubernatorial candidates were asked if they intended to vote for Trump next time around.

Only Cox said that he would if it were a choice between Trump and President Joe Biden.

“If it’s the choice between him and Joe Biden — look at what we’re doing,” Cox said. “We’re piling more debt onto our children. We just lost Afghanistan and left people that had helped us on the ground and destroyed that. I mean, the mismanagement that’s going on in California is really bad, but it pales with what we’re doing with our country.”

He added: “Yeah, I would vote for President Trump over Joe Biden any day of the week.”

The other two candidates on the stage would not say.

Faulconer, who said he voted for Trump in 2020, said he didn’t know who the nominee was going to be and urged them not to fall into a so-called “trap” set by Newsom.

“(Newsom) wants to make this all about the former president,” Faulconer said. “It wasn’t the former president that created the homeless problem that Gavin Newsom has ignored in California. It was Gavin Newsom who came out and enabled defunding the police, not the former president. Gavin Newsom wants to make this all about national politics; I want to make it about Californians.”

Kiley offered no take on Trump, saying that he prefers to say out of national politics.

“We have more than enough problems here in California,” Kiley said. “I focus on my job and I don’t look at someone who voted for the former president or someone who voted for the current president and say, ‘I can only work with one or the other.’ I say, ‘I want to work with both of you.’ – any, by the way, that is what this recall movement is all about.”

Wildfires and climate change

The Dixie Fire continues to scorch Northern California and the issue of wildfires as well as climate change factored into the later stages of the debate.

Kiley offered thoughts and prayers to the state’s first-responders battling blazes throughout the state. He said “of course” climate change is a factor in their growing severity, but argued that it was “by no means the primary cause.”

“You can look to the Creek Fire last year which ravaged huge parts of Fresno and Madera counties, but it spared a forest around Shaver Lake which emerged unscathed,” Kiley said. “It wasn’t because climate change was an issue in that forest; it was because that forest had been properly managed. They strategically removed the oldest trees and cleared out underbrush with methods like prescribed burns.

“If other forest in California were managed the same way, we wouldn’t be having these catastrophic events with the regularity that we do.”

Cox, who followed Kiley’s answer, said he wasn’t interested in throwing out thoughts and prayers to those suffering and first-responders. Rather, he said he wanted to offer “real help for a change,” which he argues starts with better managing forests and reviving the state’s timber industries.

“Not only are the overgrown forests bad for people and for the fires, they’re also bad for animals,” he said. “Let’s make sure we do that.”

He also said the state needed improvements in the way it responds to fires.

“I’ve said that we need to take some of that money from that bullet train, which I will end on day one, and use it to buy airplanes and put tanks on them so we can get these fires before they become infernos,” Cox said.

Faulconer said that he believes all can agree that the state’s climate is changing, but that, “It’s not an excuse not to take action.” He says he intends to put California on a “war footing” on wildfires, including cutting through state bureaucracy, clearing brush and offering residents tax incentives to ready their properties for potential wildfires.

“It’s about taking action,” Faulconer said. “You can’t look at what’s happening in California and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to blame it on climate change,’ but you didn’t do the things you should have done.”