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Candidates Gang Up on Absent Schwarzenegger

In the third debate shunned by the actor, four other hopefuls in the race for governor mock him. Fund-raising is also a hot topic.

September 18, 2003|Michael Finnegan and Sue Fox | Times Staff Writers

Four candidates in the gubernatorial recall race sparred over campaign money, immigration, health care and gay rights on Wednesday, in the third debate shunned by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The actor's absence, symbolized by an empty chair bearing an Arnold Schwarzenegger sign, dominated the Los Angeles Press Club forum in Hollywood. It took place across Sunset Boulevard from the CNN studios where Schwarzenegger appeared hours later on "Larry King Live."

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante opened the forum by challenging rivals Tom McClintock, Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo to join him in skipping a Sacramento forum next week. Questions in that debate, the only one Schwarzenegger has agreed to attend, are to be released in advance.

Bustamante, the best known Democrat in the race, suggested that they "leave Arnold in there with his movie-script answers and have the rest of us go outside" and hold a debate with spontaneous give-and-take.

"In the middle of a crisis there is no script," Bustamante said.

But McClintock -- a Republican state senator who stands to gain immense publicity from any face-to-face encounter with the action-film superstar -- declined to boycott Wednesday's forum. Camejo, a Green Party candidate, said he might accept Bustamante's offer; Huffington, an independent, said she definitely would.

Still, all the candidates followed Bustamante's lead in mocking Schwarzenegger. Camejo pointed to the empty chair and called him "a man on the white horse" who "never tells you what he's for."

Huffington said he was "hiding under Pete Wilson's couch," referring to the ex-governor and Schwarzenegger advisor.

McClintock belittled the actor for naming economist Milton Friedman as a conservative inspiration. When McClintock cited a Friedman book he liked, Huffington said he shared something with Schwarzenegger.

"Yeah, but I actually read the book," McClintock said.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris said Californians "don't need another debate to know that they want big changes." He said the Larry King show was sure to get higher ratings than the debate that preceded it.

"It's Arnold and Larry, one on one, for an hour," Harris said. "I think the public will learn much more about him from that than from his participation in a round table of mudslinging."

Gov. Gray Davis, whom the others are battling to replace, was, like Schwarzenegger, absent. He was attending a California Broadcasters Assn. town hall in Sacramento that was aired statewide.

Among those present, the most heated exchange was on campaign finance. Bustamante, whose aggressive fund-raising has drawn jabs from rivals, suggested that taxpayer financing of campaigns might be needed.

"Until you get to a full public financing system, you're never going to be able to do anything other than rearrange the deck chairs," he said. He did not say how much that would cost or where the state would get the money.

Camejo congratulated Bustamante for adopting a cornerstone of the Green Party platform, but McClintock went on the attack.

"Well there's a great idea," McClintock said. "In the middle of the worst fiscal crisis in this state's history, we're going to take money away from the schools, away from health care, away from all the vital services of government, and give it to politicians to run their campaigns."

McClintock went on to criticize Bustamante's acceptance of millions of dollars in donations to multiple campaign committees. "I could play the same laundering game you're playing, but my folks tell me that's illegal," McClintock charged.

"It's not illegal," Bustamante replied. "Arnold is doing it."

He added, "I just wish we could get Arnold here to hear what he has to say about any of this."

Huffington told Bustamante she welcomed his "new level of feistiness."

"I learned it from you, Arianna," said Bustamante, whose fund-raising Huffington branded "legalized bribery" in an earlier debate.

When Huffington voiced support for a voter initiative on public campaign financing, Bustamante told the author and newspaper columnist, "I don't know that you have the experience to write such an initiative."

Later, when Bustamante said the United States needs a progressive president, Huffington asked why he was chairman of the California campaign of a relatively conservative Democrat, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Bustamante answered, "Because Joe Lieberman is a friend of mine, and I'm not going to desert him when he's running for president."

On immigration, the candidates clashed over a bill signed by Davis that will allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

McClintock called it "a very dangerous piece of legislation." The other three candidates defended it. Camejo said it was a "terrible contradiction" to rely on illegal immigrants to sustain California's economy while denying them rights.

"We can't have an apartheid system," Camejo said.

Bustamante said Californians should not deprive undocumented immigrants of "the essence of humanity."

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