The five leading candidates for governor of California met last night for what is likely to be their only joint debate, one that was marked by angry exchanges and sharp disagreements on new taxes, how to solve the state's budget nightmare and even whether California's economy is in crisis.
Some of the most contentious moments of the forum at California State University, Sacramento involved author Arianna Huffington and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said that last night's forum would serve as his only debate.
Huffington turned a question about the state's car tax into a commentary on the failures of the Bush administration in Washington. When Schwarzenegger interrupted part of her answer, Huffington snapped: "Stop interrupting. Let me finish. ... This is what you do to women, we all know this."
The crowd inside the university's student union groaned and moderator Stan Statham gave Schwarzenegger extra time to respond to the "personal attack."
Schwarzenegger paused, smiled and told Huffington: "I just want you to know that I have a part for you in Terminator 4," a reference to his film series about a man-destroying cyborg. "That is all I have to say."
Repeatedly during the debate, Schwarzenegger accused the more experienced politicians of misleading voters. When Huffington said Republicans had created corporate loopholes, the actor responded that the author's personal income tax contained the biggest loophole of all.
"It's so big I could drive my Hummer through it," Schwarzenegger said, laughing. "I can't believe you."
Huffington would not let the matter drop and explained that she sometimes paid little in personal taxes because her writing income fluctuates, and added that she would pay substantial taxes this year because she has a book out.
The Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and Huffington told the audience that the state was in much better economic condition than Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republican, state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, were willing to concede.
That led Schwarzenegger to laugh and retort: "You have to be honest with the people. You guys all know that in California we have the three-strikes system, and you pulled the wool over the people's eyes twice. This is the third time. And on Oct. 7, you are out."
A discussion on taxes produced little new information about how the candidates would solve the state's fiscal woes.
Bustamante repeated his "tough love for California" plan that would raise taxes on alcohol, tobacco and the wealthiest residents of the state. The lieutenant governor said that would increase state coffers enough to fully fund schools, return 123,000 students to junior colleges and roll back the vehicle tax for those with cars valued at under $20,000.
McClintock said he would let the state contract out for basic services - at an estimated savings of $9 billion a year - and immediately move to replace California's workers' compensation system with an Arizona system that costs about one-third as much.
Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate, said the state's spending imbalance could be more easily resolved - by simply taxing the wealthiest residents at the same rate as those at the bottom of the income scale.
"Tom [McClintock] just wants to cut, cut, cut," Camejo said. "I want to put that money back into education ... to make this state the leader in renewable sources of energy."
More than 200 journalists gathered on the college campus for the showdown, which had been billed as potentially one of the turning points in the whirlwind gubernatorial recall campaign.
As the only forum in which Schwarzenegger would come face to face with the other top contenders before the Oct. 7 election, the buildup to the debate became intense.
Bustamante, in particular, had complained that the one-time bodybuilder and movie action hero was ducking his opponents and that even last night's debate, with questions provided in advance, was "scripted" to favor Schwarzenegger. But Bustamante's initial call to boycott the contest was dropped when organizers reiterated that the bulk of the evening would allow the candidates to question each other.
Schwarzenegger faced the challenge of fleshing out his somewhat general policy stands and of proving that he could think on his feet.
A display of gravitas in front of a nationwide television audience, analysts agreed, would help the actor diffuse doubts that he has too little experience to govern. His backers hoped Schwarzenegger's conservative fiscal message could hold enough of his fellow Republicans to further marginalize McClintock and to turn the replacement election into a two-man race, between him and Bustamante.
Schwarzenegger himself did nothing to lower the stakes before his lone debate - saying in recent days that the Sacramento forum would be the "Super Bowl" of gubernatorial debates and that he did not need to compete in lesser discussions.
The other top contenders faced challenges of their own - Bustamante attempting to counter recent allegations that he is too beholden to American Indian gambling tribes and other special interests, and McClintock needing to display executive mettle, even though many of his stands - against abortion and gun control and for abolishing the state Coastal Commission - put him at odds with most Californians.
Huffington and Camejo needed to expand their popular appeal, with polls showing both languishing in the single digits.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.