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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Recall Rivals Use Debate to Go on Attack

Heated exchanges on taxes, immigration and the economy mark the session. Schwarzenegger and Huffington trade angry barbs.

September 25, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The five leading contenders to replace Gov. Gray Davis tossed off barbs and swapped one-liners Wednesday night in a raucous debate over taxes, immigration and the economy.

For all their substantive differences, the most heat was shed when the hopefuls, seated together and questioned in round-robin fashion, unleashed a series of personal put-downs.

The two main antagonists, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican -- making his first debate appearance -- and writer Arianna Huffington, an independent, bickered throughout the evening.

At one point, when Schwarzenegger interrupted her, Huffington turned and said, "This is the way you treat women, we know that." The remark was an evident reference to allegations that the film star has treated women disrespectfully.

"I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4,' " Schwarzenegger shot back, which Huffington later said referred to a scene in one of his films in which his character thrusts the head of a female robot into a toilet.

The 90-minute forum on the campus of Cal State Sacramento may be the only session Schwarzenegger attends. After passing up several earlier joint appearances, he told reporters Wednesday night he was finished debating.

"Every day is a debate," he said. "We don't need to travel around and do this up and down the state and do this all the time."

Davis, who is the subject of the Oct. 7 recall vote, was not asked to participate Wednesday night, nor were any of the other 130 candidates on the ballot.

The five who attended were provided an advance list of 12 questions, which were submitted to the sponsor, the California Broadcasters Assn., by voters around the state. Despite the sneak peek, the candidates frequently sought to stray from the subject, often interrupting and fighting to be heard over one another. Moderator Stan Statham, president of the broadcasters' group, repeatedly fought for control.

As for the candidates, the political lines they drew were familiar ones as each trotted out their campaign platforms and spread themselves along the ideological spectrum.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante staked out largely liberal positions on taxes, immigration and government regulation. Alongside him were Huffington and the Green Party's Peter Camejo, who called for higher taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to help solve the state's budget problems.

Schwarzenegger, a centrist on social issues, touted his fiscal conservatism by accusing Sacramento of overtaxing Californians and over-regulating state businesses.

Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks staked out the most conservative positions by echoing Schwarzenegger's economic prescriptions, offering far more detail than the others on specific budget cuts he would make. He further noted his opposition to legalized abortion and gun control.

The tone was testy from the start.

After Schwarzenegger offered a lengthy, statistic-laden criticism of Davis and California's economic climate, Huffington tartly suggested that his facts were "simply untrue."

When McClintock disagreed with her, offering his own set of numbers, Camejo chimed in. "Both Tom and Arnold are wrong," he said.

Huffington suggested corporate tax loopholes were a big part of the reason for California's budget mess.

"You personally, personal income tax, have the biggest loophole," Schwarzenegger replied, referring to years in which she made only minimal tax payments. "I can drive my Hummer through it, it's so big."

When Huffington attacked the Bush administration, blaming its policies for the state's economic troubles, Schwarzenegger cut her off again. "If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire," he told her. "You're in the wrong state right now."

Personal shots aside, the candidates did offer contrasting views on a number of issues.

McClintock pointed out he was the only candidate on the stage who signed an iron-clad pledge not to raise taxes. Indeed, he vowed to cut taxes, slash spending by billions of dollars and roll back regulations he views as burdensome to business -- a total of $18 billion in savings "without even breaking a sweat."

McClintock came into the debate under heavy lobbying from many in his party to quit the race and back Schwarzenegger. While he did not directly take on his fellow Republican, McClintock showed no sign that he planned to step aside.

"When I make a promise, I keep it," McClintock said. "I steer a straight course and I stay the course, no matter what the pressure."

Schwarzenegger, too, called for austere fixes to California's fiscal troubles, but stopped short of signing onto McClintock's no-taxes pledge. Politicians "keep spending and spending and spending, then when they realize they made a mistake and they spent money they don't even have, then they go out, they go and tax, tax, tax," he said.

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