Six leading gubernatorial candidates shared the stage for a Town Hall at the University of Southern California, but much of the discussion was focused on two protagonists who weren’t there—Donald Trump and Jerry Brown.   It seems likely that these two outsized figures will continue to dominate the political landscape as Californians select the next governor.

The four Democrats on the stage—State Treasurer John Chiang, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Easton, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—were adamant in their intent to stand up to President Trump on issues from immigration to climate change.  The foursome seemed to be auditioning for the role of antiTrumper-in- chief.

There were two Republican contenders—Assemblyman Travis Allen and businessman John Cox.  Former Congressman Doug Ose was a late entrant into the gubernatorial race and didn’t snag an invite to participate in the forum.  When they weren’t trading barbs and snide comments about each other (or insinuations about the sexual behavior of the two Democratic poll leaders), Allen and Cox were unstinting in their criticism of Governor Brown.  While both GOP candidates railed against the gas tax and vehicle license fee increases passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor to fund transportation improvements, they bickered over who is the leader of the movement to overturn the levies.  Given the huge gaps in fundraising and name recognition between the three Republican hopefuls and the Democratic frontrunners, it is hard to come up with a scenario that doesn’t produce a two-Democrat run-off for the Governor’s race in November.

Among the Democrats, Villaraigosa was the most animated and scored a number of political and emotional points.  Chiang also put in a strong, if lower key performance, only occasionally lapsing into wonk land  Newsom, who is the early leader in the polls and fund-raising, appeared to be flatter and less emotionally connected with the audience—although he appeared to push all the right policy buttons for the vast majority of spectators .   However, his answers often came out as a string of jargon and bureaucratic acronyms, interspersed with occasional clichés and slogans.

For many in the audience (particularly women), the break-out candidate seemed to be Eastin. She came off as feisty, and connected with the crowd in a number of instances. But Eastin faces daunting odds, since she has long been out of office and appears to be significantly underfunded.

Single payer health care stood out as the issue most likely to separate the candidates.   The two Republicans, not surprisingly, hate the single payer concept and the Affordable Care Act, as well.  Among the Democrats, Newsom doubled down on his support for immediate action on single payer and his support for SB 562, Sen. Kevin DeLeon’s proposal, driven by the California Nurses’ Association, for scrapping private insurance, Medicare and MediCal in favor of a state run system.  All the Democrats voiced support for single payer as a concept, but Villaraigosa and Chiang warned against rushing headlong into single payer without nailing down revenue to cover the $400 billion cost for a State system and figuring out how it would work in real life.  Chiang and Villaraigosa were much more concerned about protecting the Affordable Care Act from attacks by the Trump Administration and the GOP Congress.

Maybe the most significant take away from the forum—an annual event sponsored by LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas the Community Empowerment Congress—was the size and involvement of the crowd. The audience was diverse, energized and loaded with Millennials. No one candidate seemed to dominate the buzz surrounding the gig, which also included issue panels and information booths for candidates and causes.  But there was a real sense of engagement and of commitment to participation.  These young men and women seemed really “woke” to the political process.

If the USC event is any indication, what has been an under-the-radar gubernatorial contest has the potential to become a barn-burner–along with the several California Congressional contests that may determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.

Expect to hear a lot more about President Trump and Governor Brown and, importantly, pay attention to the candidates who will use these two antithetical political leaders as markers for the issues that will define California’s future.