The debate Wednesday was the only recall forum that Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger had agreed to attend, and Californians tuned in to see how the Hollywood star fared in his debut as a political ad-libber.
Although the questions had been made available to the candidates long before the debate, the event remained lively. The moderator at one point said he was dizzy from the quick, loud and aggressive banter.
Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have prevented services for the children of illegal immigrants.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, came under fire for taking millions of dollars in Indian casino money. Republican 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.
Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo stayed above the fray, saying, "I'm trying to be respectful to everyone here."
The debate ranged from questions on balancing the budget, whether the car tax should be repealed and what to do about health care.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 since the candidates have all staked out positions on the major issues.
But the diversity of views among the major candidates was amply displayed — from Camejo's demands to tax the rich to McClintock's pledges never to raise taxes; from Bustamante's plea for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants to Schwarzenegger's insistence those licenses endanger California because they don't include background checks.
Schwarzenegger had set high expectations for his own performance by calling the forum "the Super Bowl of debates," and his rivals in the recall election were expected to try to challenge him or trip him up.
Some analysts said Schwarzenegger accomplished what he needed to by appearing confident and in command of issues, while others said he remained too short on specifics.
Barbara O'Connor, a California State University at Sacramento government professor, said the actor-turned-candidate "composed himself well and that's all he needed to do." In the end, however, she added, "I don't think there was a home run on anybody's part tonight."
Instead of seeking to gain advantage by attacking Schwarzenegger as many had predicted he would, McClintock used the debate to play to his conservative base, repeating a pledge not to raise taxes and reminding voters he was the only candidate present who opposed abortion.
"I steer a straight course and I stay that course, no matter what the pressure," McClintock said.
Schwarzenegger also avoided engaging with McClintock, with whom he said he agreed on issues including what both describe as California's overspending and bad business climate.
Schwarzenegger and McClintock remained locked in a battle for GOP votes that Republican leaders fear could end in throwing the election to Bustamante if Davis is recalled.
Bustamante, who is neck-and-neck with Schwarzenegger in the latest poll, used his appearance Wednesday to shore up his Democratic support — the same task analysts say he must focus on in the days ahead.
Huffington and Camejo got the opportunity to make their views known, but it appeared unlikely the two minor-party candidates would rise above low-single digits in polls.
Schwarzenegger saved his attacks for Bustamante and Huffington. At one point, Schwarzenegger took a shot at Huffington for targeting the Bush administration as the source of the state's problems.
"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 said, "This is the way you treat women, we know that. But not now."
Schwarzenegger replied, "I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," getting laughs from the audience — but a rebuff from the moderator.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central," Stan Statham said.
After the debate, Huffington said the "Terminator 4" comment was an offensive reference to a scene from "Terminator 3" in which Schwarzenegger's character stuffs a female robot's head into a toilet.
"That was such a clear and ambiguous indication of what he really thinks of women," she said.
Schwarzenegger, by contrast, said the debate was "a fantastic experience" and described Huffington as "entertaining."
Davis, the target of the Oct. 7 recall election, was barely mentioned by the candidates, who instead focused their verbal firepower on one another.
"The debate proved what the governor always says — when the laughing stops, Californians have to live with the outcome," said Davis campaign spokesman Peter Ragone.
Aides to Davis tell The Los Angeles Times they now feel he can survive the recall if he convinces 3 percent of the electorate to vote against ousting the governor. Davis' approach to those voters will include town hall meetings and a television advertising campaign.