Independent candidate Arianna Huffington managed to spark the most attacks, criticizing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante for the sources of his campaign contributions, and leveling several nasty personal attacks at Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, reports CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus.
Bustamante, a Democrat, came under attack 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 Huffington was hit for barely paying income taxes.
Throughout the first half of the debate, moderator Stan Statham of the California Broadcasters Association had to coax the candidates to stay on 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 by numerous news organizations. 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.
The debate ranged from questions on balancing the budget, whether the car tax should be repealed and what to do about health care.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.
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.
The debate was opened with the candidates evenly split on whether the recall process was good for California.
Schwarzenegger, participating in his first and only debate so far, hailed the reformist governor who pushed through California's recall law in 1911, while fellow Republican McClintock said it was a necessary step when the voters made the wrong decision.
Bustamante called it a "terrible idea" and bad for democracy. Huffington criticized the move, but said it was a historic opportunity to elect a progressive. Camejo criticized the unusual format that would allow someone to win with a minority of voters.
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 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 was to attend only Wednesday's.
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 remained undecided about whom to support if Davis is recalled.
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 did not participate 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."