Thursday, September 25, 2003

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.

“There are millions of people who are willing to abide by our immigration laws, work hard and raise their families,” Mr. McClintock said. “Illegal immigration is cutting in line in front of them, and I don’t think we should be rewarding that behavior.”

Mrs. Huffington, Mr. Bustamante and Mr. Camejo said they supported giving services to illegal immigrants, but Mr. McClintock’s position on the issue was direct.

“We are talking about people here who are breaking the law,” Mr. McClintock said.

Mr. Schwarzenegger was not clear as to whether he supported financing the health care of illegal immigrants, but said the bill Mr. Davis signed this month allowing illegals to get state driver’s licenses was “dangerous for the security of California.”

Mr. Bustamante often prefaced his remarks by telling a fellow candidate, “I agree with you,” yet was the only candidate who called illegal aliens “people indigenous to this country.”

He urged voters not to listen to “what people say on national TV shows” — a swipe at Mr. Schwarzenegger’s campaign announcement on “The Tonight Show” — and said he would protect “a woman’s right to choose.”

Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said he thought Mr. McClintock was the most factually prepared, but Mr. Schwarzenegger was the most memorable.

“The only problem for McClintock is that he’s like the class valedictorian,” Mr. Pitney said. “Everyone expects a solid factual performance, so when he delivers one, he doesn’t surprise anybody.”

Mr. Pitney said he thought Mr. Schwarzenegger “might have come across as overly aggressive,” but said he likely impressed a constituency he needs to win over.

“Arnold may have done enough to close the sale with many Republican voters, who were awaiting his performance,” Mr. Pitney said.

The candidates received a dozen questions in advance on topics such as balancing the budget, a colorblind society and services for the elderly. The format has prompted criticism from Mr. Schwarzenegger’s opponents, as well as Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who said the actor has been dodging more spontaneous candidate forums.

“I think it is kind of ironic that the only debate that Schwarzenegger is participating in is the one you have the questions in advance,” Mr. Davis told reporters a few hours before the 90-minute debate. “Part of being governor is handling uncertainty. When we were attacked on 9/11, there was no road map as to what to do.”

The actor did not take part in Sept. 3 and Sept. 17 debates, and Mr. Schwarzenegger’s campaign said he does not intend to participate in a debate set for Tuesday.

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