Candidates for governor in the California recall race faced off Wednesday in the only debate to involve all five major contenders - including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Schwarzenegger said he would join in only this debate, in which the candidates were given the questions in advance. The other participants - who are taking part in other exchanges - have suggested that the actor-politician is avoiding them, because he performs well only if someone is writing his lines.
Although Wednesday's topics were known beforehand, the format was innovative because participants were encouraged to question each other directly. And, at points, the discussion became a free-for-all, with the audience getting more than it bargained for.
Soon after the event got underway, a flustered host - Stan Statham - tried to sort out panelists, who were drowning out their rivals. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and independent candidate Arianna Huffington proved the worst offenders.
The host introduced enough order to allow the panelists to cover a range of subjects, from taxes to education. They differed when asked to comment on the wisdom of the recall, with Cruz Bustamante calling the action against Governor Gray Davis, a fellow Democrat, a "terrible mistake." The other candidates agreed that the special election reflects real voter anger.
Green Party candidate Peter Camejo says - in spite of portrayals around the country - the recall is no joke. It is the first California election to give third-party candidates, like him, a major voice. "This election is the worst election we've ever had, and the best election we've ever had," he said. "Why the best? Because the public has really gotten a chance to hear and see more than two points of view, to all of a sudden have two candidates here who are not Democrats and not Republicans."
He says it is the worst election because there is no run-off and - if the governor is recalled - the leading alternative would then take office, even with the support of a small number of voters.
Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed with fellow his Republican Tom McClintock that California must become friendlier to business.
All of the candidates had suggestions for improving the state's economy and fixing its budget problems. But, repeatedly through the evening, they talked past one another, as moderator Stan Statham tried to introduce some order.
There are two key questions on the ballot for the October 7 election. The first asks if Governor Davis should be removed from office. The second lists 135 candidates who hope to replace the governor, with the selection effective only if a majority votes to remove him.
Polls show Mr. Davis is facing an uphill battle. In a recent survey, 51 percent said in a recent survey that they want him out of office. For the governor, that is a slight improvement over earlier polls.