Carl DeMaio (left) eyes fellow GOP candidate Darrell Issa during 2-hour forum at Maxine Theater attended by more than 400 people. Photo by Chris Stone

Darrell Issa ripped Republican rival Carl DeMaio on Friday night.

A forum of the four leading foes in the 50th Congressional District race was no lovefest either. (See the two-hour event here.)

Two weeks after launching a TV spot that featured DeMaio’s openly gay status — what an editorial called “unacceptable and unforgivable” gay-baiting — Issa spoke backstage at the Maxine Theater in Valley Center.

He was given a chance to critique DeMaio’s own attack ads.

“Well, they’re just not factual,” said the former North County congressman. “Since Day 1, he’s been deliberately telling lies. He went on KUSI, for example, looked in the camera and said: ‘Issa only came home three times in one year.’”

Issa said DeMaio was never held accountable for that remark.

“It’s such a bad lie that you can talk to any member of the congressional delegation — Juan (Vargas), Scott (Peters), Susan (Davis),” Issa told Times of San Diego. “For that matter, you can talk to just business people on the flight. They’d say, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. We see him on every week.’”

Issa continued: “So when you’re willing to tell an outright lie like that and then every lie after that — including the idea that I don’t support the (border) wall, that I didn’t support Trump, any question whether or not I’m [for] amnesty.”

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The 66-year-old Vista resident recalled his narrow 2016 victory over Democrat Doug Applegate, who was “beating me over the head with Donald Trump. … I didn’t walk away then. Why would I not be a solid supporter of the president? I am.”

Issa turned the tables, saying DeMaio called Trump a pig on his former KOGO platform.

“He told people on his own radio show, after he interviewed Libertarians, they should consider voting for the Libertarian,” Issa said.

Issa also defended commercials depicting DeMaio as being pro-choice on abortion and sympathetic to “sanctuary cities” that resist cooperating with federal efforts against undocumented aliens.

“Look — we played in our ads his own words. … We didn’t play them out of context,” Issa said. “Why is he pretending to be pro-life? Why is he pretending to be against sanctuary cities? Why is he pretending to be for Trump? Because that’s what this district would like to see.”

Issa noted how DeMaio once won deep-pocket Democrat Irwin Jacobs’ endorsement in the 2012 San Diego mayor’s race.

“He also said he wouldn’t cut a penny out of President Obama’s budget, which included funding $500 million for Planned Parenthood,” Issa said of DeMaio.

DeMaio — who declined a Times of San Diego interview request after Friday’s forum, saying “I have to prioritize news services” — responded Saturday.

“Obviously, Darrell Issa is desperate to distract voters from the fact he authored the amnesty law to benefit 11 million illegal immigrants, and was the only Republican to call for a special prosecutor to investigate President Trump,” DeMaio said via email.

Issa on Friday was asked: Is reminding voters in the 50th that DeMaio is openly gay going to hurt the 45-year-old?

“Look, nobody needs to remind anybody of anything,” Issa said.

(In fact, as a 52nd District candidate against Scott Peters in 2014, a commercial titled “Carl DeMaio: A New Generation Republican” showed him holding hands with his longtime partner, Johnathan Hale, at the 2012 San Diego Pride Parade.)

But in the wake of criticism from his own county Republican Party chairman (Tony Krvaric, who attended the Valley Center forum and left before it was half over), Issa suggested he would cease focusing on the gay theme.

“The Union-Tribune, who used that headline themselves many times, took exception to it, so I’ve carefully made sure I haven’t used it again,” he said. “But look — we weren’t trying to make any point about Carl except that he doesn’t support the president and he’s lying about his history — whether it’s his tax increases as a city councilman, which he was rabid about. Whether it’s his ethics violations that he paid for and then tried to defund the Ethics Commission while he was a city councilman.”

Issa acknowledged that he’s made his own campaign mistakes over 18 years in Congress, “but all we’ve done is take [DeMaio’s] comments verbatim and put them out there for the voters to understand — nothing more, nothing less.

If DeMaio weren’t gay, would he have a better chance of prevailing in the March 3 primary?

“No,” Issa said. “In this district [a candidate] being pro-abortion, having no military background, no history of actually cutting taxes when he was a city councilman. His being for sanctuary cities when he was running for mayor. Those things hurt him. Those are the issues.”

Issa agreed that Ammar Campa-Najjar, the second-time candidate in the race, is conservative on some issues.

“But he’s got the usual Democratic ‘the world is unfair [line], time and time again.’ You heard it with the 1 percent, and so on. The reality is that — although he espouses some conservative ideas, and I think they’re genuine and earned — … he is still too liberal for this district, while in fact I fit this district quite well.”

Issa said the 30-year-old Campa-Najjar would vote again to make Nancy Pelosi the House speaker even though “he said he wouldn’t.”

“But at the end of the day, he’s not going to vote for [Republican] Kevin McCarthy,” the House minority leader.

A straw poll after Valley Center forum showed Ammar Campa-Najjar the audience favorite with 61% support. (PDF)

Last week, Campa-Najjar appeared to do some backpedaling on his impeachment stance after being severely criticized by progressives for “shockingly right-wing positions on key issues” including Trump — not taking a hard line for conviction.

He wrote an op-ed after the president’s acquittal. And he responded to a series of questions from Times of San Diego.

He agreed that a generic president who illegally impounded Congress-approved security funds to coerce a foreign head of state to help get re-elected was worthy of removal.

He said Democratic House managers saw Trump make his own case for conviction.

Trump’s interpretation of Article II of the Constitution — “which he believes allows the president to do ‘whatever I want’ — sets a dangerous precedent,” wrote Campa-Najjar.

Does Trump pose a threat to the 2020 elections as Rep. Adam Schiff contends?

“Possibly, but as I said in my opinion piece: ‘If people vote in record numbers, it will be impossible for anyone to get within cheating distance of winning an election illegitimately.’”

Times of San Diego also asked Campa-Najjar if he was worried about losing votes in the heavily Republican 50th district had he called for removal of the president.

“Not at all,” he replied. “My position is based solely on what I believe is responsible and right. If I was in Congress, and all the evidence provided a cumulative and conclusive case for impeachment, I would vote to impeach without mental reservation or fear of political retribution.

“The process is as important as the verdict to me, hence why Democrats are saying an acquittal by a sham trial is not an acquittal at all. Conversely, a guilty charge from anyone other than a juror is not a charge at all. I take the act of impeachment seriously, and if I was in the position I would do the right thing regardless of consequence.”

Professor Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College, the longtime local political observer, said Campa-Najjar “to a degree” is trying to distance himself from earlier statements.

“What he’s trying to do is give moderate Republicans and independents the classic Supreme Court nominee response to a direct question — I can’t answer how I’d rule because I wasn’t in that office at the time and don’t have all the facts, etc., while still trying to say to Democratic voters he’s on their side,” Luna said.

Will Republicans in CA50 consider Campa-Najjar anti-Trump from his new responses?

“No … they’ll consider him anti-Trump for simply being a Democrat,” he said. “He’ll never get consistently Republican voters to vote for him. His only hope is for a lower-than-usual GOP turnout and a higher-than-usual Democratic turnout.”

Is Campa-Najjar resisting being associated with Democrats who sought conviction and removal?

“I think he was trying to thread the needle but is realizing there is no real needle there to thread,” Luna said. “He’s got to hope Democrats rally to the cause in large numbers and by November those Republicans who aren’t happy with the primary results (the disappointed Issa or DeMaio voters) stay home.”

Times of San Diego also asked Campa-Najjar: If elected to Congress, would Pelosi be able to count on you to support her key legislative efforts?

He replied: “The voters of CA50 are the only people I’m beholden to, I’ll work with anyone from Pelosi to Trump so long as it helps my district and will oppose anyone from either party if it harms my district.”

Does Campa-Najjar consider Issa and DeMaio anti-Trumpers as their dueling attack ads contend?

“Yes,” he said. “The attacks are off-putting but true.”

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