ORANGE, Calif. - Support for the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis is slipping, a new opinion poll says, while Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has opened a slim lead over Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Field Poll, set for release today, found that 55 percent of likely voters support the recall, down from 58 percent in August.

Bustamante and Schwarzenegger were about even a month ago, but Bustamante has opened a small lead - 30 percent to the actor's 25 percent, according to the poll.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, the leading conservative in the race, finished in third place, with 13 percent, a gain of 4 percentage points.

Former baseball commissioner and businessman Peter Ueberroth garnered 5 percent and columnist Arianna Huffington received support from 3 percent of those polled.

The poll, conducted over a five-day period ending Sunday, was drawn from telephone interviews with 505 likely voters, and has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

The poll results come just 30 days before the Oct. 7 vote. Yesterday also was the first day of absentee voting in the recall election. Election officials say absentee voting is a growing trend and could account for up to a third of the votes.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger held a town hall meeting at a college campus last night, taking another step toward settling into the role of a traditional candidate.

The Republican front-runner mimicked Davis' style in holding unscripted exchanges with guests at Chapman University. Davis, who has held a series of town hall meetings in what he has described as a bid to reconnect with Californians, was scheduled to hold a forum in Los Angeles later last night.

Schwarzenegger said he had an honorary doctorate from the university and joked: "I'm not really a doctor, ... but then again the reality of it is Gray Davis isn't really a governor."

In response to a law student's question about how he would protect public schools, Schwarzenegger said he would focus on giving local districts more control. He described Sacramento as "the schoolyard bully."

Schwarzenegger, who was criticized early in the campaign for not making himself available to reporters, has in recent days held extended news conferences during public appearances. His campaign also was planning three or four more town halls.

Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, campaigned at a voter-registration event in the Sacramento suburb of Natomas, but the event was countered by a dozen union members opposed to the recall.

At one point the group chanted, "Yes on pants, no on recall," a reference to a 1988 Playboy magazine interview in which Schwarzenegger said he inherited his father's distaste for women's slacks.

Shriver was peppered with questions about Schwarzenegger's past comments that have been criticized by some women's groups. The Kennedy relative said she is confident that women will support her husband's campaign.

Davis' anti-recall campaign announced in San Diego that it was working to bring former President Clinton to the state to help the governor try to retain his job.

"It is absolutely not nailed down, but I would expect news within the next couple of days," said Steve Smith, campaign director of Californians Against the Costly Recall.

Davis faced more fallout yesterday from his criticism last week of Schwarzenegger's Austrian-accented pronunciation of California.

California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim called for an apology, and Huffington, a Greek-born independent candidate, seized on the issue.

"Contrary to what Governor Davis said, you can have an accent, you can pronounce California in the wrong way and still be governor of California," she said.