Arnold Schwarzenegger flexed his muscles last night in his first California recall election debate, accusing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante of “pulling the wool over people’s eyes” and telling liberal columnist Arianna Huffington that “you need a little more decaf.”
“It’s ridiculous for Bustamante to say that everything is fine and dandy,” said the Republican gubernatorial candidate. “In California, we have a three-strikes [criminal sentencing] system. You pulled the wool over people’s eyes twice. This is the third time, and the third time, you’re out.”
Last night was the first chance for candidates to challenge in person Mr. Schwarzenegger, who needed to make a good impression in the only debate he would attend. One analyst said Mr. Schwarzenegger may have “done enough to close the sale” for California Republicans who doubt his fitness for office.
The Sacramento debate featured Mr. Schwarzenegger, Mr. Bustamante, Mrs. Huffington, Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, and Green Party candidate Peter M. Camejo. The five, all vying to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, found it difficult to refrain from talking over each other’s answers in the contentious, roundtable debate.
Mrs. Huffington took a question about the state budget as an opportunity to complain about “business tax loopholes” and was interrupted by Mr. Schwarzenegger, who alluded to reports that the columnist paid very little state and federal incomes taxes last year.
“You’re personal income tax has the biggest loophole. I can drive my Hummer through it, they’re so big,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said. “It’s so big. I can’t believe you.”
The debate quickly got personal.
Mr. Schwarzenegger, like many other candidates, began to interrupt Mrs. Huffington, which prompted the retort: “This is not polite, and I know this is the way you treat women.”
As boos echoed through the auditorium at Mrs. Huffington’s comment, moderator Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Association, brought the debate to a halt and warned candidates not to resort to “personal attacks.”
However, he gave Mr. Schwarzenegger a chance to respond.
“I have a perfect part for you in ‘Terminator 4,’” Mr. Schwarzenegger said.
Mr. McClintock, a staunch conservative, refrained from jumping into the verbal battles between Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mrs. Huffington. He also did not attack the action-film star for his social liberalism, a point he has been pounding home on the campaign trail.
When the topic moved to illegal immigration, Mr. McClintock took the strongest stance, saying he opposes giving free health care and issuing driver’s licenses to illegals.
“We have got to ensure that our immigration laws are enforced,” Mr. McClintock said, adding that it is important to make a distinction between legal and illegal immigration.