California tunes in to lively debate |

California tunes in to lively debate

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The so-called “Super Bowl of debates” between the top candidates vying to replace Gov. Gray Davis turned out to be less scripted than expected, with rivals frequently trading barbs and talking over each other.

The debate Wednesday was the only recall forum that Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger had agreed to attend, and Californians tuned in to see how the Hollywood star fared in his debut as a political ad-libber.

Although the questions had been made available to the candidates long before the debate, the event remained lively. The moderator at one point said he was dizzy from the quick, loud and aggressive banter.

Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have prevented services for the children of illegal immigrants.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, came under fire for taking millions of dollars in Indian casino money. Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock was told he had the facts backward on the economy, and independent Arianna Huffington was hit for barely paying income taxes.

The candidates rushed back to the campaign trail Thursday after the dust settled from the debate, which was held less than two weeks before the election.

As they did so, former candidate Bill Simon decided to endorse Schwarzenegger over McClintock, according to a source close to Simon.

Simon, a conservative businessman who lost the governor’s election to Davis last year, originally entered the race to replace him but dropped out last month when polls showed him trailing Schwarzenegger and others.

Davis, the target of the Oct. 7 recall election, was barely mentioned by the debaters, who instead focused their verbal firepower on one another.

Schwarzenegger turned on Bustamante and Huffington, at one point taking a shot at Huffington for targeting the Bush administration as the source of the state’s problems.

“If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire,” Schwarzenegger said.

The tension between the two peaked when Schwarzenegger cut Huffington off and she said, “This is the way you treat women, we know that.”

Schwarzenegger replied, “I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4,” getting laughs from the audience — and a rebuff from the moderator.

After the debate, Huffington said the “Terminator 4” comment was an offensive reference to a scene from “Terminator 3” in which Schwarzenegger’s character stuffs a female robot’s head into a toilet. She called it a clear “indication of what he really thinks of women,” she said.

Schwarzenegger said the debate was “a fantastic experience” and described Huffington as “entertaining.”

Davis campaign spokesman Peter Ragone said, “The debate proved what the governor always says — when the laughing stops, Californians have to live with the outcome.”

The substance of 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 since the candidates have all staked out positions on the major issues.

But the diversity of views among the major candidates was amply displayed — from demands to tax the rich to pledges never to raise taxes; from a plea for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants to insistence those licenses endanger California because they don’t include background checks.

Schwarzenegger had set high expectations for his own performance by calling the forum “the Super Bowl of debates,” and his rivals in the recall election were expected to try to challenge him or trip him up.

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