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Zippy one-liners spice up Calif. debate

By Wire services
Published September 25, 2003

SACRAMENTO - Accusing his opponents of spouting "total pre-election bogus," Arnold Schwarzenegger did his best Wednesday night to dominate a riotous debate among primary candidates in the California recall election, taunting the other contenders with one-line jokes and sarcastic cracks about their policies.

Contrary to widespread predictions that the forum would be scripted, the candidates bickered and interrupted one another in a fierce, 90-minute rhetorical battle.

- Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante came under attack for taking millions of dollars in Indian casino money.

- Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have prevented services for the children of illegal immigrants.

- Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock was told he had the facts backward on the economy.

- Independent Arianna Huffington was hit for barely paying income taxes.

- And Green Party candidate Peter Camejo just tried to stay above the fray, saying, "I'm trying to be respectful to everyone here."

But respect for each other was hard to find between Schwarzenegger and Huffington.

"Your personal income tax loophole - I can drive my Hummer through it," Schwarzenegger said to Huffington, a millionaire columnist who paid less than $1,000 in personal income taxes over two years.

Huffington said she sometimes paid little in personal taxes because her writing income fluctuates. She also shouted down Schwarzenegger when he tried to interrupt her comments about the state budget. "This is the way you treat women, we know that," she said. "But not now."

"I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," he shot back, a reference to his film series about a man-destroying cyborg.

Stan Statham, the frustrated moderator who at times barely managed to move the debate forward, interjected, "This is not Comedy Central, I swear."

The stakes were high for the debate, which was carried live on national cable networks including CNN, MSNBC and Fox. One in five voters in a recent poll was undecided and two-thirds said they would be swayed by the face-off, which might have been the most-watched debate in California political history.

The forum of the top candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis marked the first time Schwarzenegger confronted his rivals in person. The movie star is not planning to participate in any other forums before the Oct. 7 election.

The debate ranged from questions on balancing the budget, whether the car tax should be repealed and what to do about health care.

The answers provided few surprises because the candidates have staked out positions on the major issues and were given 12 of the questions ahead of time, but the heated discussion gave the leading candidates among the 135 on the ballot a chance to question each other and respond in the lively format.

The debate opened with the candidates evenly split on whether the recall process was good for California.

McClintock said it was a necessary step when the voters made the wrong decision.

Bustamante called it a "terrible idea" and bad for democracy. Huffington criticized the move, but said it was a historic opportunity to elect a progressive. Camejo criticized the unusual format that would allow someone to win with a minority of voters.

A discussion on taxes produced little new information about how the candidates would solve the state's fiscal woes.

Bustamante repeated his "tough love for California" plan that would raise taxes on alcohol, tobacco and the wealthiest residents of the state. The lieutenant governor said that would increase state coffers enough to fully fund schools, return 123,000 students to junior colleges and roll back the vehicle tax for those with cars valued at less than $20,000.

McClintock said he would let the state contract out for basic services, at an estimated savings of $9-billion a year, and immediately move to replace California's workers' compensation system with an Arizona system that costs about one-third as much.

Camejo said the state's spending imbalance could be more easily resolved by simply taxing the wealthiest residents at the same rate as those at the bottom of the income scale.

"Tom (McClintock) just wants to cut, cut, cut," Camejo said. "I want to put that money back into education . . . to make this state the leader in renewable sources of energy."

- Information from the Boston Globe, Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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