The leading Democratic replacement candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, appeared to hold his ground under criticism, while Sen. Tom McClintock, the second leading Republican, improved his standing with sharp, articulate answers, political analysts said.
Five candidates participated in the debate: Bustamante, McClintock, columnist Arianna Huffington, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the Green Party's Peter Camejo.
Schwarzenegger was hardly mentioned during the debate, reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman, but afterwards his opponents were critical of his absence.
"I don't believe that a candidate who is not willing to discuss his views in the presence of the other candidates can be taken seriously," McClintock said.
The candidates tried to chart out separate identities. On taxes, McClintock insisted he was the only candidate with a no-tax pledge, while Camejo said it was necessary to raise taxes on "the richest people in California."
Schwarzenegger chose not to participate, instead delivering a speech hundreds of miles away at California State University at Long Beach, where he literally came under siege — being hit by an egg.
Unfazed when the egg hit his left shoulder, the action hero peeled off his coat and went ahead with a 15-minute speech in which he said he is running to give something back to a state responsible for his success.
Before Wednesday's debate, a contrite Davis led a question-and-answer with reporters and voters, saying he had not acted soon enough to deal with the state's energy crisis and pledged to keep in better touch with the people.
"I understand people are angry. I understand that people's lives are not as good as they were two years ago," said Davis, employing a theme he has repeatedly used throughout the recall campaign.
Davis said he would rather have raised taxes on the wealthy to solve the budget crisis than to have increased car taxes and raised costs for college students. But he said Republicans made it impossible.
The debate, the first of three scheduled so far in advance of the Oct. 7 vote, was open to candidates receiving at least 4 percent support in either a recent poll or the last statewide vote, leaving out 129 lesser-known candidates.
The forum offered the broadest look yet on where the candidates seeking to replace Davis stand on issues. The only issue on which they agreed was support for legalization of medicinal marijuana.
Huffington, an independent, said her administration would favor teachers over prisons. Camejo said the state needed to become a leader in renewable energy. And Ueberroth had a unique take on solving the budget crisis: "I'm about locking up the Republicans and Democrats the first day until we have a budget that works," he said. "It's not going to be pretty."
Some analysts said Schwarzenegger's absence could hurt him and bolster McClintock, the more conservative candidate who seemed to reinforce the support he has received at the polls.
"I think the big loser here was Arnold, you might see that Arnold has slipped and McClintock has improved," said Brian Janiskee, political science professor at California State University at San Bernardino.
During the debate, Bustamante was criticized for taking advantage of a loophole in campaign finance law that allowed an Indian tribe to pledge $2 million to his financially struggling campaign.
Huffington, an independent, said Bustamante had made a mockery of campaign finance laws, which allowed him to circumvent new contribution limits by accepting the bulk of the money in an old campaign account. "This is nothing but legalized bribery," Huffington said.
"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante replied.
Ueberroth acknowledged that he wasn't the smoothest candidate in front of a camera and didn't have all the answers, but said he would improve as the campaign progressed.
"I'm a little mad about this whole thing," Ueberroth said afterward. "But it's OK because the fight's just starting."
For his part, Schwarzenegger broke no new ground during his speech. He criticized politicians for overspending, vowed to reform workers' compensation and promised to prioritize children's issues.
Talking to reporters afterward, Schwarzenegger sought to clarify his stance on campaign fund-raising. After entering the campaign promising not to take money from anyone, he soon began collecting large checks from wealthy contributors and companies.
"I will not accept any money from unions or Indian tribes," Schwarzenegger said.
But records posted on the Secretary of State's Web site Wednesday showed he took $2,500 from a union, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. Schwarzenegger's campaign spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the contradiction.