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California Recall Election Candidates Meet for Final Debate - 2003-10-03

Three candidates for California governor met in a final debate Thursday as California's recall race enters its closing days before voting. The two key figures in the race did not participate.

Conservative Republican Tom McClintock was there, with Democrat Cruz Bustamante and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.

But the focus was on two people who were absent, embattled Governor Gray Davis and his leading challenger - according to recent polls - the actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There will be two key questions on the October 7 ballot. The first asks whether Governor Davis, a Democrat, should be removed from office. The second lists 135 replacement candidates, not including Mr. Davis.

The governor noted Thursday there is only one front-runner in that group.

"One thing that has become clear over the last several days is that we no longer have 135 choices to make," he said. "It's really one choice likely to emerge from question two, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that leaves the voters with a clear choice. They can retain Gray Davis as governor, or they can elect Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Before Thursday's debate began, a supporter and an opponent of the recall made brief statements. Both were former candidates who have now withdrawn from the race. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort, said the governor should be removed, but Arianna Huffington, a liberal commentator who ran as an independent, says recalling Mr. Davis will not solve California's problems.

"We will in fact make things much, much worse. We'll open the door to a Republican takeover of our state," she said.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the target of other charges in Thursday's Los Angeles Times. The newspaper quotes six unnamed women who say that he sexually groped them, over a 25-year period.

The actor later admitted he has "behaved badly sometimes," and he apologized and promised to be a "champion" for women, if elected.

Cruz Bustamante seized on the admission in the debate.

"Arnold says that he thought he was being playful. He says today now that he understands that his actions were offensive. Well, actions like this are more than offensive," he said.

The Democratic candidate says they are criminal misdemeanors.

As those candidates debated, Arnold Scwharzenegger was heading northward through the state in a caravan of buses.

At one stop near Los Angeles, he promised to rescind a major hike in the auto tax approved by Governor Davis.

"So watch what's going to happen over there to a car. Watch over there," he said.

He dramatized his promise to slash the auto tax by having a weight drop on a car, smashing it.

"Hasta la vista, baby, to the car tax," he said.

Mr. Schwarzengger will finish his four-day tour in Sacramento Sunday. All of the major contenders promise to keep up a busy schedule until the election Tuesday.