LOS ANGELES – Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), who skipped California's first recall debate, continued to avoid specifics on the thorniest issues, instead devoting Thursday to registering voters for the Oct. 7 recall.
Schwarzenegger draws huge crowds, as he did Thursday in the GOP stronghold of Riverside. But campaign aides live in fear that many of those in Schwarzenegger's cheering throngs aren't registered to vote.
"This is why we are starting today a statewide drive with TV spots, radio spots, having people all along the state signing people up and bringing them in," Schwarzenegger said.
But as he registers new Republicans, he still has not unveiled specific plans on the deficit, the economy, workman's compensation and other issues concerning voters.
Aides insist they are being developed. To fill up the vacuum, Schwarzenegger is falling back on his populist pitch.
"We have the power to decide if the government is doing the job or not. And if we see that they are not doing their job, then we have the obligation to rise up and to vote against whoever is in power and to take the government back," he said.
Schwarzenegger is stepping up the pace. Plans call for events throughout the weekend. And Schwarzenegger told the California Broadcasters Association (search) that he doesn't want to see the questions ahead of time for the sole debate in which he will participate on Sept. 24. The sponsors have offered to make the questions available to all the candidates.
Aides hope Schwarzenegger's constant movement will muffle criticism about skipping the first televised debate.
Like so much in the recall, Wednesday night's debate defied expectations and drew impressive TV ratings in Los Angeles, tying the highest-rated program in its time slot. It also demonstrated an intensified rivalry between the Democratic governor and his understudy, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search).
"There is real interest in this recall. People know something important is going on," said Fox News political analyst Susan Estrich.
Davis, who defended his administration for half an hour before five top contenders to replace him debated, said Republicans had forced him to raise college tuition and triple the car tax, an extremely unpopular move among voters.
"They would rather shoot their mothers than raise taxes," he said before later saying he was joking about that comparison.
Bustamante, the leading Democrat on the replacement ballot, criticized Davis' decision to negotiate expensive energy contracts with the big utilities to avoid more brownouts. After the debate, Davis defended the decision, saying brownouts threatened patients on kidney and breathing machines.
"So if you call their bluff and the lights go out ... you're going to find some dead people on your hands. I'm not going to play Russian roulette with the people of this state," Davis told the Los Angeles Times.
Political analysts say Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock did well at the debate, while pundit Arianna Huffington was the most combative. Green Party candidate Peter Camejo made his point too, railing against America's 200-year election processes.
Political analysts and strategists from both major parties gave former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth very low marks for his performance. Ueberroth generally downplayed or avoided answers on many social issues and appeared frustrated at the debate's lack of focus on job-creation.
"He did not have a good night," said Dan Schnur, Ueberroth's political director. "But it wasn't because he lacks energy or verve to do the job. He just got increasingly frustrated at the lack of focus on what the recall is really all about — and that's the economy and jobs. The questions seemed to miss most of what the recall is all about."
Schnur said with Schwarzenegger's absence, Ueberroth missed a big opportunity to prove himself and show he's capable of carrying a "shake-up-the-system" message to Sacramento. But, he insisted that Ueberroth would remain in the race.
"We are in to the end," he said.