Five candidates in the California recall race debated the issues Wednesday. The leading Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, chose not to participate. Embattled Governor Gray Davis also stayed out of the debate, but was given a chance to defend himself before it began.

Mr. Davis, given 30 minutes to answer questions from reporters and audience members, said that voters are angry and admitted that he is out of touch with them. "Governing should be a two-way street, and you get wrapped up in Sacramento, talking to legislators who are important, talking to various lobbyists who are important, talking to constituency groups," he said. "But at the end of the day, the people who put you there in the first place, you have to stay connected to them."

If he survives the recall, he promises to do that.

Like the California recall ballot, the two-hour public meeting in northern California had two parts. In the first, Governor Davis was questioned by reporters and members of the audience, who included an unemployed high-tech worker and a struggling mother. She wanted to know how he will help her if he stays in office. "I'm a single working mom on a limited income, and I also want good education, better roads, safety. How do you plan to fix the budget problem without increasing my taxes, tripling my car registration, and leaving a little bit more in my pocket to support my family?," she asked.

"I'm not sure I can answer it to your satisfaction," said Mr. Davis. But he tried, talking about the complexity of the problem of cutting expenses while maintaining essential services.

In the second part of the meeting, five of the leading candidates who may replace Mr. Davis debated the issues. The only Democrat on the panel, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, opposes the recall, but is running in case it passes. He was asked how he would do things differently.

"The governor's going to make his decision, he's going to make statements to the voters. He's going to have to talk to them directly," said Mr. Bustamante. "The second part is going to be about who is going to succeed him in the event that the recall is successful. My option here is to distinguish myself with my ideas against those folks who are here, and the guy who's not."

The one who was not was the leading Republican candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He will join in only one debate, September 24. It will have a more structured format and the candidates will be given the questions beforehand.

Mr. Bustamante has gained ground in political surveys, out-polling Arnold Schwarzenegger in the most recent poll. He has also turned around a struggling campaign with help from an Indian tribe, which has gambling operations that the state regulates. The candidate accepted a campaign pledge of two million dollars from the tribe, bypassing a legal contribution limit by placing the funds in an old campaign account. Independent candidate Arianna Huffington called the contribution "legalized bribery."

But most of the sparring in this debate was over competing solutions to the state's financial problems. Democrat Bustamante wants to cure California's ills mostly by raising taxes, especially on the wealthy. Arianna Huffington wants higher taxes on business. So does Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, who also wants the state to maintain a fiscal reserve for low-income years.

Republican Peter Ueberroth says the next governor should make California more friendly to business, creating jobs and generating taxes. Fellow Republican Tom McClintock agrees and says that taxing business doesn't help the budget in the long run. "Let me let you in on a little secret about business taxes. Businesses don't pay taxes," he said. "Businesses pay their taxes through you as a consumer through higher prices, through you as an employee through lower wages, or through you as an investor through lower earnings. And most investors are not big fat cats. That's mom and dad's retirement fund we're talking about."

The two Republican candidates said they would not touch Proposition 13, a citizen-sponsored measure that holds down property taxes. The other three candidates said the measure may have to be revised to generate revenue, especially from commercial property owners.