SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — The most-anticipated debate of California's recall campaign quickly turned into a shouting match Wednesday among four of the five leading candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis, forcing the moderator to repeatedly chide them for straying from the subject.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, came under attack for taking millions of dollars in American Indian casino money. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have prevented services for the children of illegal immigrants. 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.
Throughout the first half of the debate, moderator Stan Statham of the California Broadcasters Assn. had to coax the candidates to stay on subject. At one point, Statham said he was dizzy from the loud, aggressive banter.
"Cruz, Arianna, Cruz, Arianna, Cruz, Arianna," Statham said as Bustamante and Huffington parried on the issue of business and taxes.
Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo stayed above the fray, saying, "I'm trying to be respectful to everyone here."
The stakes were high for the debate, which was carried live on national cable networks including CNN, MSNBC and Fox. One in five voters in a recent poll was undecided, and two-thirds said they would be swayed by the face-off, which could be the most-watched debate in California political history.
The debate ranged from questions on balancing the budget, whether the car tax should be repealed and what to do about health care.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 because the candidates have all staked out positions on the major issues, but the heated discussion gave the leading candidates among the 135 on the ballot a chance to question one another and respond in the format.
Huffington continuously targeted the Bush administration as the source of the state's problems, connecting Schwarzenegger to the president's policies.
The actor quickly shot back that she was in the wrong place.
"If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire," Schwarzenegger said.
The tension between the two peaked when Schwarzenegger began to cut Huffington off and she replied, "This is the way you treat women, we know that. But not now."
Statham penalized Huffington and gave Schwarzenegger a chance to reply, providing another opening for one of his frequent movie references.
"I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," he said to Huffington, as the audience laughed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central," Statham said.