The stakes were high for the nationally televised debate: 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.
Schwarzenegger set high expectations for his own performance by repeatedly 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 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."
In addition to Schwarzenegger, a Republican, the 90-minute debate at California State University's Sacramento campus will feature Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, independent Arianna Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.
The candidates were given a dozen questions in advance on such topics as how to balance the budget, the meaning of a colorblind society and services for senior citizens.
Two months of court challenges that started when the election was certified finally ended Tuesday when a federal appeals court reinstated the original Election Day, Oct. 7.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the election could go ahead next month despite the risk of confusion from the use of punch-card ballots in some counties.
At least 500 representatives from more than 100 media outlets around the world were expected to cover the debate, said the organizers, the California Broadcasters Association.
The scripted format prompted criticism, particularly among Schwarzenegger opponents who said he has been deliberately dodging more spontaneous candidate forums.
Schwarzenegger did not take part in debates held on Sept. 3 and Sept. 17. Although another major debate is set for Sept. 30, Schwarzenegger's campaign said the intention is to attend only Wednesday's.
At other forums, Schwarzenegger's absence has been the focus of sniping by contestants. An empty chair with his name on it has been used to signify the missing celebrity.
In a poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, 67 percent of likely voters said the debate would influence their vote. The poll also showed that one in five voters remains undecided about who to support if Davis is recalled.
The debate comes just days after Schwarzenegger began airing an ad attacking the powerful Indian gambling interests and implicitly criticizing Bustmante and McClintock for taking large campaign contributions from the tribes. On Tuesday, Bustamante hit back, airing an ad that called Schwarzenegger an elitist outsider from "Planet Hollywood."
"If there is a real shootout at the debate, it can only help Davis," said Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg. "Davis has to hope everyone does badly here, including Bustamante."
Davis, who is not participating in the debate, was the target of new attacks from Schwarzenegger as well. In an essay Wednesday on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Schwarzenegger wrote that Davis "has created a counterproductive culture in Sacramento where businesses and entrepreneurs that dare make a profit are treated as if they are enemies of the state."
He referred to Bustamante as "Gray Davis — The Sequel" and said the two Democrats have created "an endless litany of taxing schemes."