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Top California recall candidates debate -- without Schwarzenegger

Davis tells voters he's gotten their message

Five of California's gubernatorial candidates in the state's recall race gathered for a debate Wednesday evening.
Five of California's gubernatorial candidates in the state's recall race gathered for a debate Wednesday evening.

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WALNUT CREEK, California (CNN) -- Five top candidates in California's gubernatorial recall election parried Wednesday evening as they sought to gain favor with voters who will decide October 7 whether to kick Gov. Gray Davis out of office.

The five -- independent Arianna Huffington, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo and Republicans Tom McClintock, a state senator, and Peter Ueberroth, a former baseball commissioner -- debated for 90 minutes in a mostly congenial session that was preceded by a separate appeal by Davis to voters not to toss him out of office.

Taking questions from reporters and some state residents, Davis, a Democrat, vowed to do a better job if voters allowed him to finish out his second term, which he was elected to in November.(Full story)

"I will keep in touch with you," he said.

His would-be replacements -- with the exception of Bustamante -- said Davis' time had passed and voters -- frustrated by state deficits and a lackluster economy -- need a fresh start.

"This is the opportunity of our generation," McClintock said.

Bustamante repeated his stance of opposing the recall, but offering himself as the most viable and experienced alternative should Davis be ousted.

But Bustamante -- the leader in the polls -- found himself on the defensive after some of his rivals criticized millions of dollars in campaign contributions from an Indian tribe, something Huffington described as a loophole in campaign laws.

"This is nothing but legalized bribery," charged Huffington, a political commentator.

"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante retorted.

There was little mention of the campaign's most visible candidate -- actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who skipped the debate. He instead appeared earlier at a rally in Long Beach, where he was egged by one apparent detractor.(Full story) Schwarzenegger has said he will participate in one debate, scheduled for September 24.

Ueberroth and McClintock stressed their belief that cutting fraud could help bring spending under line, but they provided little few specifics on how they would accomplish it. McClintock repeatedly pledged he would not raise taxes.

But Huffington said she would look at raising property taxes for California's wealthier residents, a position shared by Camejo.

Huffington said Proposition 13 -- which severely restricts the state's ability to raise property taxes -- had disproportionately benefited the state's wealthier residents.

The candidates outlined their positions on several issues.

• On a proposal to grant illegal immigrants the right to drivers' licenses -- a controversial issue in a state with a large immigrant population -- all but McClintock said they supported the idea, saying even illegal immigrants contributed to the economy and would need a driver's license to get to work. McClintock said the proposal undermines the enforcement of immigration laws.

• On gun control, Camejo and Huffington said they would support more restrictions while McClintock called for fewer. Bustamante said he would look for ways to better implement existing gun laws, and Ueberroth said he would turn to the law enforcement community for advice on what more might be needed.

• On the question of medical marijuana, all five candidates said they agreed with California voters who supported that idea in a proposition.

The debate -- the first of three that have been scheduled -- took place in Walnut Creek, outside San Francisco and was hosted by several local news outlets.

The five are among 135 candidates whose names will appear on the October 7 recall ballot.

They qualified for the debate by receiving at least 4 percent support in either a recent major poll or the last state election they faced.

A simple majority will decide whether Davis is recalled on October 7. If he is, a plurality of votes will determine his successor.

--Written by Producer Sean Loughlin in Washington.

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