SAN FRANCISCO – Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) billed it the Super Bowl of debates, and across California, voters tuned in to see whether the muscle-bound movie star scored or fumbled in his primetime debut as a political ad-libber.
Broadcast live on television stations across the country, the 75-minute five-way matchup engaged but unswayed a small sampling of viewers in San Diego, Orange County, the San Francisco Bay area, Fresno and Sacramento who offered some immediate post-event quarterbacking.
Their conclusion: Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search) pleasantly surprised some Republicans, and conservative Sen. Tom McClintock (search) and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo (search) showed their true colors. But the constant shouting between Schwarzenegger and independent Arianna Huffington (search) was a unfortunate distraction.
"People were entertained more than they were informed. This is not enough to know anybody's position," said Democrat Shani Egginy, 22, a student at California State University-Sacramento, where the debate was held.
Several voters said Schwarzenegger entered the debate with a bigger burden to overcome than his rivals, since he refused to participate in two previous televised debates and all candidates received Wednesday night's questions in advance. Some were left still feeling his his campaign is long on celebrity and short on specifics even after he landed a couple of one-liners.
C.J. Pascoe, 29, a graduate student and registered Democrat watching at a hotel bar in Berkeley, said she had a hard time taking Schwarzenegger seriously because the debate was "scripted" so "Arnold can read his lines."
Schwarzenegger's zingers got a better reception at the Revere House restaurant in Tustin. The largely conservative crowd there, watching on a giant screen TV, booed when Huffington wisecracked about Schwarzenegger's treatment of women, then cheered when Schwarzenegger responded that he had the perfect part for her in "Terminator 4."
"Stick a fork in her. She's done," said Bob Restaino, a Republican from Orange, said after Schwarzenegger's retort.
The 62-year-old said the early moments of the forum more resembled a comedy act than a political debate before "finally getting serious."
He said he felt McClintock did a better job during the debate but was leaning toward voting for Schwarzenegger because he was the only one of the two Republicans who could win.
Republican Steve Cuevas wrestled with the same dilemma. The 55-year-old from Orange said he would vote for whichever Republican is ahead in the polls on election day, but was surprised at what he described as a strong performance by Bustamante.
"I think Cruz Bustamante looks very very well," he said. "But it's more of the same. He's got to raise taxes."
As for Schwarzenegger's performance, Cuevas said the actor appeared coached: "He should look good. He's obviously been practicing."
Also watching at the Tustin restaurant, Dan Eppinger, 37, a Republican from Irvine who went into the debate supporting Sen. Tom McClintock, said the candidates were short on specifics. But he was specifically disappointed in Schwarzenegger.
"He said we needed to solve this, we needed to solve that, but he didn't say how he would solve it," Eppinger said.