As the Los Angeles mayor’s race approaches its final month, Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso will face off Thursday evening in the first of two debates over the next week.

Thursday’s debate, hosted by KNX News, comes days after the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that Caruso had closed a double-digit gap in August down to 3 percentage points at 34% to 31%. But the billionaire still trailed Bass by a sizable margin — 46% to 31% — among likely voters despite spending more than $62 million on the race compared to $6 million for Bass.

Bass, in an interview Wednesday with City News Service, acknowledged that Caruso had gained ground, attributing it to the developer’s ability to blitz the airwaves. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Caruso is expected to spend more than $20 million on TV ads alone through the end of the campaign.

“His strategy is to pay for ads that repeat lies over and over again in hopes that people will believe them, but I have faith in Angelenos that they will be able to judge the difference,” Bass said.

Bass, who had led by 12 points in the August poll, said she was going to run with “confidence but not overconfidence.”

“I don’t take anything for granted, especially when someone is spending millions and millions of dollars every day,” Bass said.

The Bass campaign sent a fundraising email on Wednesday with the subject line “Caruso is cutting into Karen’s lead,” claiming that “Caruso’s ad blitz is flooding the airwaves with just five weeks to go, and he could drown out our campaign if we don’t respond.”

Caruso was not available for comment Wednesday, but he said on Twitter after the latest poll was released that the race was tightening.

“The choice in this election is clear; positive change or just more of the same. More failure, and more excuses,” Caruso said. “We have the winds of change at our backs as we march to victory and this poll clearly shows it.”

Mindy Romero, director of USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, told CNS that while Caruso has made some progress, the gap in likely voters favoring Bass indicates he still has a hill to climb to make the race competitive. Romero expects Caruso to continue to run ads attacking Bass while trying to position himself as the candidate of change on issues like homelessness.

Homelessness, discussed at-length during the first debate last month at the Skirball Cultural Center, should once again be a prominent topic. Earlier this week, the City Council voted to end Los Angeles’ long-standing eviction protections due to COVID-19 hardship at the end of January.

Bass said she was “very concerned” by the decision, though she didn’t know what the council’s alternative options were. Bass noted that she worked to bring federal funds as a House member to support both Project Roomkey and Homekey.

“We just got the homeless count back,” Bass said. “I know, frankly, if those supports all go away, then the numbers are going to dramatically increase because people will literally be put out of housing and out on the streets.”

Both candidates said they supported extending the eviction moratorium at the first debate, but Caruso said he would have changed it to be more fair to landlords.

“I am more than happy to support somebody to stay at a reduced rent until they can get back on their feet, as long as you prove that you can do that,” Caruso said at the debate.

At the remaining debates, the goal for Bass as the frontrunner will be to remain mistake-free because Caruso has the ability to capitalize by blanketing the airwaves with “any sort of flub that might be recorded,” according to Romero.

“I think Caruso is looking to get the extra set of sound bites off to generate more conversation,” Romero said. “He wants to look like a mayor, but he’s going to be in challenger mode.”

In recent weeks, Caruso has run ads criticizing Bass for accepting a scholarship at USC’s school of social work and making a speech at a Church of Scientology event more than a decade ago.

Bass, in turn, has responded with an ad critical of Caruso’s handling of the gynecologist scandal at USC while he was the chair of the Board of Trustees.

Bass also held an event this week at the Women’s March Action Headquarters to point out that Caruso has yet to make good on a promise to donate $1 million toward Proposition 1, the November ballot measure which would codify reproductive rights in California’s constitution.

Thursday’s debate will be followed by a debate Tuesday airing on NBC 4 and Telemundo 52. The KNX debate will be moderated by Charles Feldman and Mike Simpson, with three additional panelists also asking questions.

The first debate featured some attacks by the two candidates at each other, though Bass hopes that Thursday’s debate features a “discussion about our plans.”

“That’s what I think is most productive for voters, as opposed to a gotcha side show,” Bass said.

The debate will air at 5 p.m. on 97.1 FM and 1070 AM and stream on KNXNews.com.

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