They got some help Saturday from CNN's Larry King, who invited them onto his show to debate one-on-one. But while Davis's campaign quickly accepted, the Republican front-runner's people insisted he has no intention of debating the Democratic governor.
"Gray Davis is taking a page from the desperate candidates' handbook. He knows he's behind," said Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman Todd Harris. "He knows he needs to do something to shake up the dynamics of this campaign."
Schwarzenegger had also rejected an outright Davis challenge to debate Friday.
Caught in the middle is Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who was initially encouraged to run as the Democrats' insurance candidate in case Davis loses the recall vote. Now, Democrats fear Bustamante's candidacy has enough momentum to increase the "yes" on recall vote and hand the governor's office to the Republicans.
"Part of the challenge here is making Democrats understand the choice they have before them is retaining Gov. Davis or electing Gov. Schwarzenegger," said Davis adviser Garry South. "All these political geniuses who were adamant that we had to have a Democrat on the second part of the ballot are hoisting us on our own petard."
Conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock also has been on the defensive, repeatedly rebuffing Republican entreaties to drop out rather than split the GOP vote.
Bustamante tried to focus Saturday on an inspirational speech to Hispanic high school students and on his plan to lower health care prices in California by creating a state purchasing pool for prescription drugs. Instead, he had to parry questions about him damaging the Democrats' chances of surviving the recall.
"Every speech I've ever done, every interview I've ever had, my commercials, all say 'no on the recall,' and we're going to keep doing that," Bustamante said, adding that he still hopes Davis will campaign with him and even endorse him as a potential replacement candidate.
That's not going to happen, the governor's advisers say. They believe they need to move about 10 percent of registered Democrats now inclined to vote yes on the recall, mostly in Southern California and in the Central Valley, to switch and vote no.
To do that, they've got to convince voters Davis is the only viable Democratic option, and keep the focus on Schwarzenegger. Friday night, the Davis campaign did just that, airing its first attack ad, which accuses the actor of getting his facts wrong, lacking experience and repeatedly failing to vote.
It's a counterpunch to ads Schwarzenegger aired for a week attacking the governor. Schwarzenegger also has promoted GOP endorsements that suggest McClintock not only won't get elected, but could also rob the party of its best opportunity to win California in years.
Bustamante said his internal polls show him tied with Schwarzenegger, with McClintock moving up. "It has become a three-person race, I think," Bustamante said Saturday.
Analysts say the two-man show strategy is a high stakes move that could anger voters on both sides.
"When it comes to the voter and it comes to the average California spectator, it signifies arrogance," said Republican strategist K.B. Forbes. "It will provoke people to run away from Schwarzenegger, and Davis had the same problem in last election because of his arrogance in ignoring the grassroots."
Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant, agreed.
"This is not a two-man race," she said. "Bustamante is still very much a force on the Democratic side, as is McClintock on the Republican side. What Schwarzenegger and Davis are doing is extremely risky."
So alienated are some GOP activists by Schwarzenegger's strategy, said a political adviser on condition of anonymity, that they are weighing whether to organize a news conference next week to call on conservatives to vote 'no' on the recall in protest.
Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort, warned conservatives last week that they should vote no on the recall if both Schwarzenegger and McClintock were still in the race come election day, a statement he later retracted.
McClintock appears unswayed in his latest campaign ad, also unveiled Friday.
"I would not be in this race if I did not believe I could win," McClintock said. "I'm the one moving up and gaining very rapidly, from what I've been told."
In other developments:
An unofficial analysis of registration figures shows Republicans have made more significant gains than Democrats in key GOP counties and suffered fewer losses in key Democratic counties, which would seem to improve the chances that Gov. Gray Davis could be recalled.
Meanwhile, more than 900,000 absentee ballots already have been cast in the recall election, and county registrars are beginning to predict a record absentee vote and an overall voter turnout that will exceed the 2002 election and rival the 2000 presidential election.
The order could mean Bustamante will have to cancel as much as $1 million in advertisements he planned to air over the next 11 days, according to representatives of the plaintiff in the case, state Sen. Ross Johnson, R- Irvine.
Bustamante accepted $3.8 million in donations from Indian tribes with gaming interests and labor groups beginning last month, in amounts that far exceeded the new legal limit of $21,200 per donor, the Chronicle reported. The Viejas Tribal Government gave $1.5 million, which some campaign finance experts believe is the largest single donation in California political history.
The controversy over Bustamante's outsized donations has overshadowed his campaign, providing the primary source of material for attacks on him by his opponents.'