SACRAMENTO, Calif. – If Arnold Schwarzenegger (search)'s goal at Wednesday's night's gubernatorial debate was to prove his mettle, he succeeded in one person's mind.
Former candidate Bill Simon planned to endorse the actor-turned-Republican candidate for governor in a Town Hall meeting Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, a source close to Simon told The Associated Press.
The top five candidates seeking to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) in the Oct. 7 recall vote jousted, sparred and occasionally bickered in the most-watched debate ever for a statewide election.
Schwarzenegger, making his debate debut, was joined Wednesday night by Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search), Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock (search), independent Arianna Huffington (search) and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo (search) at California State University.
With less than two weeks until voters decide the immediate political fate of Davis, the forum was likely the first and last meeting of the five gubernatorial hopefuls.
The stakes were high for the debate: One in five voters in a recent poll was undecided, and two-thirds said they would be swayed by the face-off.
Though questions were released to the public beforehand, the debate managed to be lively and, judging by audience reaction, entertaining. The imminence of the vote likely contributed to the fast-paced, no-holds-barred feel of the evening, in which the five clashed from the get-go over the state of California's economy and the soundness of the recall itself.
Schwarzenegger, whose performance was the most highly anticipated, opened the debate by hailing the reformist governor who pushed through the recall provision in 1911.
Bustamante, who has strayed from his original message of "no on recall, yes on Bustamante," returned to his theme, calling it a "terrible idea." He also pointed out the recall's potential for chaos, citing groups preparing to organize a second recall should a Republican triumph in the Oct. 7 election.
Huffington also criticized the recall, but said it was a historic opportunity to elect a progressive. Camejo criticized any way that would allow someone to win with a minority of voters.
Attacks Get Personal
Questions ranged from balancing the budget to whether the car tax should be repealed to what to do about health care. The candidates predictably went after Schwarzenegger, their biggest threat despite his lack of political experience.
Schwarzenegger told Bustamante, "Remember one thing, in California we have a three strike system. You guys put wool over the people's eyes twice, the third time now you're out. On Oct. 7 you guys are out."
Bustamante accused Schwarzenegger of ignorance about some issues, but rather than fighting back, he shook his head and chided, "OK Arnold, OK."
Bustamante was fingered for taking millions of dollars in Indian casino money. Schwarzenegger was criticized for supporting a divisive ballot initiative nine years ago that would have halted services for illegal immigrant children. McClintock was told he had the facts backward on the economy, and Huffington was chided for jumping into everyone else's talk time.
The unique debate format, moderated by California Broadcasters Association (search) President Stan Statham, imposed no time limit on answers. Candidates talked over one another in a raucous spectacle.
Then the attacks got personal.
Schwarzenegger alluding to recent revelations that the millionaire Huffington paid no individual state income tax and less than $800 in federal taxes in the last two years. Huffington dug at Schwarzenegger's reputation in Hollywood circles as a womanizer, which drew oohs and boos from the audience.
The action star shot back, "I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," to the audience's delight.
After the debate, Huffington said the "Terminator 4" comment was an offensive reference to a scene from "Terminator 3" in which Schwarzenegger's character stuffs a female robot's head into a toilet. She called it a clear "indication of what he really thinks of women," she said.
On Thursday, Schwarzenegger said he was referring to Huffington's forcefulness because the movie series typically has had strong women in it.
The Bush Factor
Huffington repeatedly targeted the Bush administration, prompting Schwarzenegger at one point to retort, "If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire."
The attacks on Bush were likely an attempt to take advantage of the president's growing unpopularity over the economy and the Iraq war.
"She was going after people who didn't vote for Bush," said U.S. News and World Report's Michael Barone, a Fox News contributor. "I don't think [her strategy] is going to work."
Fred Barnes, co-host of Fox News' The Beltway Boys, called Huffington "frivolous and a pest and not a serious candidate." Both pundits said Schwarzenegger had erred in locking horns with her so often.
Barnes said Schwarzenegger performed well and proved to be a serious contender.
But "Arnold had the opportunity to wrap up this election, and he didn’t," Barnes said. "He was strong, but not that strong."
The debate gave a boost to McClintock, who has been touting his conservative positions. Barnes speculated that McClintock supporters who were preparing to jump to the former body builder's camp may now be thinking twice.
But Baron said if the state senator did not see a noticeable post-debate hike in poll standings, his Republican supporters would throw their vote to Schwarzenegger.
McClintock declined to take shots at Schwarzenegger, and didn't mention the issue paramount to GOP leaders: the possibility they will split the Republican vote and throw the election to Bustamante.
Schwarzenegger he looked forward to working with McClintock but McClintock, who has been pressured to drop out, said he was staying in.
Duf Sundheim, the state's GOP chairman, said on "Hannity and Colmes" that the party was still debating whether to ask McClintock one last time to drop out. Many prominent Republicans have thrown their support behind Schwarzenegger, and Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall movement, was expected to announce his support for the front-running political novice on Thursday, Fox News has learned.
Meanwhile, Bustamante, who is the only major Democrat in the race, was weak in the debate, Barnes and Baron said. When asked what was responsible for California's fiscal dire straits, he simply responded: "We spent too much."
Except for Huffington, the candidates avoided personal attacks in their closing statements.
Schwarzenegger asked voters to support what he said was the biggest goal he had ever set for himself.
"This one is a little bit bigger than I am," the former Mr. Olympia said. "I need your help."
McClintock said he was the only one who has vowed not to raise taxes and who opposes to abortion rights. He said he was a man of his word and promised to cure budget problems without raising taxes.
"I steer a straight course and I stay that course," he said.
Bustamante reminded viewers of his small-town roots, growing up in government housing, the son of a barber who worked two other jobs to support a wife and six kids.
"We learned the value of hard work," he said.
Camejo criticized the war in Iraq, renewed his call for lower taxes for the poor and higher taxes on the wealthy, and promoted renewable energy policy.
Huffington continued to promote her grass-roots campaign, attacking the "rise of the fund-raising machines" and saying special interests were treating government like an ATM machine.
"Only a truly independent leader can end our broken system," she said.
The debate came as the campaign has taken a distinctly negative turn.
On Monday, Schwarzenegger began airing television commercial attacking Davis and taking aim at the state's powerful Indian gambling tribes, implicitly criticizing Bustamante and McClintock.
On Tuesday, Bustamante hit back with an ad that called Schwarzenegger an elitist outsider from "Planet Hollywood." Schwarzenegger released a new radio ad Wednesday attacking tribes that criticizes Davis, Bustamante and McClintock.
Davis said he would soon decide how to respond.
"I will tell you this: His ads say more about Mr. Schwarzenegger than they do about anyone else," Davis said. "He said he would not take special interest money, and now he's taking it. He said he would not run attack ads, now he has. He said he'd debate people, but now will only do it if he gets the questions in advance."
Fox News' Jane Roh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.