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California debate turns into shouting match
( 2003-09-25 13:49) (Agencies)

The most-anticipated debate of California's recall campaign quickly turned into a shouting match Wednesday among four of the five leading candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis, forcing the moderator to repeatedly chide them for straying from the subject.

Republican candidate for California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gives the thumbs-up to supporters at a party held after the recall debate in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003.  [AP]
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, came under fire for taking millions of dollars in Indian casino money. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have prevented services for the children of illegal immigrants. State Sen. Tom McClintock was told he had the facts backward on the economy, and independent Arianna Huffington was hit for barely paying income taxes.

Throughout the debate, moderator Stan Statham of the California Broadcasters Association had to coax the candidates to stick to the subject. At one point, Statham said he was dizzy from the quick, loud and aggressive banter.

"Cruz, Arianna, Cruz, Arianna, Cruz, Arianna," Statham said as Bustamante and Huffington parried on the issue of business and taxes.

Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo stayed above the fray, saying, "I'm trying to be respectful to everyone here."

The stakes were high for the debate, which was carried live on national cable networks including CNN, MSNBC and Fox. One in five voters in a recent poll was undecided, and two-thirds said they would be swayed by the face-off, which could be the most-watched debate in California political history.

It was the first and only debate so far for Schwarzenegger, who has been criticized for deliberately dodging more spontaneous candidate forums. He did not take part in earlier debates in which the questions were not provided in advance.

The debate had an element of the circus atmosphere that has helped define the campaign.

Huffington continuously targeted the Bush administration as the source of the state's problems, connecting Schwarzenegger to the president's policies.

The actor quickly shot back that she was in the wrong place.

"If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire," Schwarzenegger said.

The tension between the two peaked when Schwarzenegger began to cut Huffington off and she replied, "This is the way you treat women, we know that. But not now."

Statham penalized Huffington and gave Schwarzenegger a chance to reply, providing another opening for one of his frequent movie references.

"I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," he said to Huffington, as the audience laughed.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central," Statham said.

Except for Huffington, who defined her candidacy in contrast to others, the candidates avoided personal attacks in their closing statements and some even sounded a note of humility.

Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who shares more liberal social views, asked voters to support what he said was the biggest goal he had ever set for himself.

"This one is a little bit bigger than I am," the former Mr. Olympia said. "I need your help."

McClintock, who sat next to Schwarzenegger and has been pressured by the actor and other Republicans to drop out, painted himself as the clear conservative in the race: the only one who has vowed not to raise taxes, the only one who is opposed to abortion rights. He said he was a man of his word and promised to cure budget problems without raising taxes.

"I steer a straight course and I stay that course," he said.

Bustamante reminded viewers of his small-town roots, growing up in government housing, the son of a barber who worked two other jobs to support a wife and six kids.

"We learned the value of hard work," he said, pledging to protect working families.

Camejo veered into national politics, criticizing the war in Iraq, and renewed his call for lower taxes for the poor and higher taxes on the wealthy, while also promoting a renewable energy policy.

"The wealthy people are not paying their fair share of taxes," he said.

Huffington continued to promote her grass-roots campaign, attacking the "rise of the fund-raising machines" and saying that special interests were treating government like an ATM machine.

"Only a truly independent leader can end our broken system," she said.

The debate ranged from questions on balancing the budget, whether the car tax should be repealed and what to do about health care.

The answers provided few surprises because the candidates have all staked out positions on the major issues, but the heated discussion gave the leading candidates among the 135 on the ballot a chance to question each other and respond in the lively format.

Schwarzenegger set high expectations for his own performance by calling the forum "the Super Bowl of debates," and his rivals in the Oct. 7 recall election were expected to try to challenge him or trip him up.

"This is the opening scene of the third act of the campaign, and it's a referendum on Arnold," said GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "He needs to come across as competent, that he has command of public policy issues and that he appears qualified to be governor. If he does all that, he'll win."

At least 500 representatives from more than 100 media outlets around the world covered the debate, said the organizers of the debate at California State University, Sacramento.

The debate came as the campaign has taken a distinctly negative turn. On Monday, Schwarzenegger broke a vow to stay positive, and began airing a television commercial attacking Davis and another taking aim at the state's powerful Indian gambling tribes and implicitly criticizing Bustamante and McClintock for taking large tribal campaign contributions.

On Tuesday, Bustamante hit back with an ad that called Schwarzenegger an elitist outsider from "Planet Hollywood." Schwarzenegger released a new radio ad Wednesday attacking tribes that criticizes Davis, Bustamante and McClintock by name.

Davis, who is not participating in the debate, said he had not yet decided how to respond to Schwarzenegger's attacks, but said a decision would come soon.

"I will tell you this: His ads say more about Mr. Schwarzenegger than they do about anyone else," Davis said. "He said he would not take special interest money, and now he's taking it. He said he would not run attack ads, now he has. He said he'd debate people, but now will only do it if he gets the questions in advance."

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