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Inside Politics

California candidates spar in free-wheeling recall debate

'Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central'

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California Recall
Who won Wednesday night's recall debate?
Cruz Bustamante
Peter Camejo
Arianna Huffington
Tom McClintock
Arnold Schwarzenegger

SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- With just 13 days to go before the California gubernatorial recall election, the five leading candidates sparred for 90 minutes Wednesday night in a free-wheeling and pivotal debate that featured, for the first time, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Republican actor-turned-politician and his rivals -- Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock, independent Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo of the Green Party -- were allowed to rebut and interrupt each other as they answered questions given to them ahead of time by the debate's sponsor, the California Broadcasters Association.

At one point, as he struggled to keep the conversation on point, exasperated moderator Stan Statham said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central. I swear."

Schwarzenegger, making his lone scheduled debate appearance of the campaign, emphasized his signature issue of trying to improve the state's business climate, which he said was now the worst "anywhere in the nation."

"When we bring jobs back and the economy is booming, then we create more revenue and then we can afford some of the programs and pay off the debt," he said.

Bustamante, meanwhile, pushed his "tough love" program for combating the state's fiscal woes, including raising income taxes for high-income Californians and hikes in tobacco and alcohol taxes.

"I've decided to face this realistically, to deal with it practically, to understand it and not to tell half truths about what we're likely to be able to do," he said. "We've done all the easy things, and now it's time to do the tough things."

The lieutenant governor also conceded that the state's financial problems were the result of politicians in Sacramento who "spent too much."

"We clearly knew that there were certain incomes that were coming in, and we spent more than we had," he said.

Schwarzenegger quickly pounced on the idea of fixing past overspending with higher taxes.

"The politicians make a mistake. They keep spending and spending and spending. Then when they realize they made a mistake and they spend the money they don't even have, then go out and tax, tax, tax," he said.

"You guys have an addiction problem. You should go to an addiction place because you cannot stop spending."

Bustamante was also the only candidate to express opposition to the October 7 recall election, in which voters will first decide whether to toss Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and then pick a replacement should he be recalled.

"I think the recall is a terrible idea. I think it's bad for democracy. I think it's bad for our state," he said.

But Bustamante -- whose announced campaign strategy is to urge Californians to vote "No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante" -- mentioned his opposition to the recall just once and made no case for keeping Davis. He also said he agreed with the other candidates "that there's some good that could come from this as a result."

Most of the fireworks during the debate weren't between Bustamante and Schwarzenegger, who are running first and second in the polls, but between Schwarzenegger and Huffington.

When she criticized GOP support for corporate tax loopholes, Schwarzenegger responded that he could "drive my Hummer" through the loopholes she used to pay negligible personal income tax during the last two years.

She retorted, "I was writing and researching a book, and I wasn't making $20 million violent movies."

At another point, when Schwarzenegger interrupted her, Huffington objected. "This is the way you treat women. We know that. But not now."

Allowed to rebut what Statham ruled was a personal attack, Schwarzenegger said, "I would just like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4.'" He also suggested that she might need "more decaf."

After being repeatedly linked to the policies of former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose advisers are helping Schwarzenegger, he finally retorted, "On October 8th, it's not going to be Governor Wilson or Governor Bush or any of those kinds of things. It's going to be Governor Arnold, OK?"

"Let us just pray that it's not, because the last thing the state needs is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger," Huffington said. "It's very important that the people of California knew who you really are, because, you know, you've been saying so many things and then contradicting them a few weeks later."

Schwarzenegger's only remaining major Republican rival, McClintock, who is running third in the polls, used the debate to clearly position himself as the more conservative choice, emphasizing his pledge not to raise taxes and his opposition to abortion rights, gun control and providing public services to illegal immigrants.

He also emphasized his support for Proposition 54, a controversial measure also on the October 7 ballot that would prohibit the state from collecting information about race.

"I believe I'm the only candidate on this platform who supports Proposition 54, [which] simply says that our government has got to stop classifying us by race," he said. "It doesn't matter what race you are. The government should treat everyone exactly the same."

But Camejo countered that Proposition 54 "promotes ignorance" by keeping the government from collecting information about disparities between racial groups.

"If you're for equality, you have to be willing to have the information so we can take the necessary action to change things," he said.

McClintock, who is dividing the Republican vote with Schwarzenegger, has been under pressure to exit the race to improve Schwarzenegger's chances of beating Bustamante.

But speaking to reporters after the debate, he insisted that he will not drop out.

"Let me make this as clear as I can. When I entered this race, I made a promise to stay in it to the finish line. And I keep my promises," McClintock said.

Though McClintock has been trying for weeks to get Schwarzenegger to debate with him, Wednesday's forum featured no contentious exchanges between the Republican rivals.

At a post-debate news conference, Schwarzenegger noted that he and McClintock agreed on many issues and said, "I think we could make a good team in Sacramento."

Schwarzenegger also said he has accomplished the two things he set out to do in the debate -- show that he was comfortable discussing policy issues and outline his direction for the state.

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