Recalling Arnold's First Debate

Republican candidate for California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gives the thumbs-up to supporters at a party held after the recall debate in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003.
In California, the political spin doctors are working overtime today. They are trying to sway public perceptions of last night's televised appearance by Republican recall election candidate Arnold Schwarzenneger and four other major contenders to replace Governor Gray Davis.

But there is much more going on behind the scenes, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

Schwarzenegger was pumped up at last night's debate in Sacramento, Calif., the only one he is likely to participate in. And the verbal punches flew between him and Independent candidate Arianna Huffington.

"Let me tell you, you have the biggest tax loophole. I can drive my Hummer through it," Schwarzenegger quipped to Huffington.

Without missing a beat, Huffington fired a frank rebuttal: "I don't get $20 million for violent movies," she said.

The California recall debate quickly came to resemble a political sitcom, and garnered top ratings.

In Los Angeles alone, nearly 40 percent of all televisions, more than a million homes, were tuned in for the free-for-all.

After mistakenly addressing Huffington as "Governor Schwarzenegger" during a heated scuffle between the two candidates, moderator Stan Statham said, "I'm going to have to lower my meds."

And that wasn't the only one liner in the "Arnold and Arianna show."

After swapping barbs, Schwarzenegger told Huffington, "I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator Four.'"

With Schwarzenegger and Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante virtually tied, the debate was touted to be a make-or-break event, especially for the actor turned politician

"I don't think he lost any ground. But i don't think he gained any ground," said one California resident of Schwarzenegger's performance.

"I don't know exactly who to vote for yet," another said. "We'll have to stay tuned."

On the campaign trail today, the sniping continued, reports CBS' Bowen.

Of his "Terminator" comment to Huffington, Schwarzenegger said, "Actually, it was a compliment. If she takes it the wrong way, it's not my fault."

"It's a comment he would never have made to a man," Huffington said.

Leading recall target Gray Davis, the man who wasn't there said, "With 12 days to go, the candidates are going for broke, maybe literally, promising to be all things to all people, despite California's multi-billion dollar budget deficit."

Bustamante today pledged thousands of dollars in assistance for California families with loved ones stationed overseas. The California troops abroad have special dispensation to fax in their absentee ballots.

Schwarzenegger pulled up this week in an SUV to promote a future of hydrogen fuel for cars, a proposal that most scientists and environmentalists say is impractical and too costly.

And Davis can't sign bills fast enough. One of the latest mandates: a Mexican sugar treat, the churro, be sold fresh instead of frozen on the streets of California.

In this race, no issue is too small.