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Sacramento Windstorm

September 25, 2003

The televised five-candidate show in Sacramento Wednesday night fell somewhere between a World Wrestling Federation event and a pie fight. Moderator Stan Statham of the California Broadcasters Assn. needed a whistle and a striped shirt. It's a shame that the probing questions that a real debate would have offered were nowhere to be found. Not one word was uttered about the structural reforms necessary to right the state economically and politically.

The loss was often the candidates'. Arnold Schwarzenegger, by participating only in this debate, needed to come across as knowledgeable about state problems -- particularly the budget quandary -- and offer a specific program of action. He didn't do so; this was partly his failure and partly the fault of the freewheeling nature of the 90-minute discussion. It was difficult to declare winners or losers as candidates tossed barbs at their foes, talked -- or yelled -- over each other, engaged in generalities and sought to win favor with rehearsed laugh lines.

The biggest laughs involved barbed exchanges between Schwarzenegger and independent candidate Arianna Huffington. She made a crack about "the way you treat women." He replied, "I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4.' " The laughs were a poor substitute for follow-ups and questions tailored to the candidates. Cruz Bustamante and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) got away without criticism of their huge contributions from Indian casino interests, and no one challenged McClintock's effusive praise of infrastructure construction under Democratic Gov. Pat Brown -- spending financed by the taxes that triggered the Proposition 13 tax revolt.

The impending $8-billion budget shortfall, on top of billions in debt barely cloaked in long-term loans, is the most critical immediate problem facing the state. It was one of the triggers of the recall against Gov. Gray Davis, to be decided in the Oct. 7 special election. Schwarzenegger said the governor and legislators were addicted to spending and now just wanted to raise taxes. His only specific proposal was to cap spending.

McClintock was the most specific on the budget and emphatic in his opposition to any more taxes. That has been his favorite theme for 20 years. But he erred in saying the state was now spending more of people's earnings than at any time in history. The state now collects about $7 for every $100 in income, less than in 1988-89.

Huffington called for reassessment of business properties and closing of various business loopholes. Bustamante and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo called for higher taxes on the wealthy. Both, joined by Huffington, supported allowing illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses. Schwarzenegger and McClintock were opposed.

Davis was absent, both physically and in the candidates' answers. Considering the low quality of the information the event provided to voters, he should be happy about it. Nothing happened Wednesday night to give Californians reason to replace Davis. A "no" vote on the recall looks better every second.

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