LOS ANGELES – Two of the biggest names in California's historic recall election are drawing more scrutiny over their absence than their presence.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), the GOP front-runner in the Oct. 7 election, will not participate in the campaign's first televised debate Wednesday evening, intensifying questions about his ability to discuss state issues.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) launched the first commercial of a TV ad campaign to save his job, but he doesn't appear anywhere in it. Instead, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), the state's most popular Democrat, does all the talking.
Schwarzenegger's decision to skip Wednesday's first televised debate deprived the forum of its standing-room-only potential.
"The truth in California is no one ever watches debates and without Arnold in the debate, you can be certain that no one will watch the debate," said Democratic strategist and Fox News analyst Susan Estrich.
Instead, Schwarzenegger was delivering a speech before supporters and students at California State University in Long Beach. He also was launching a new ad in which he claims that special interests are poisoning Sacramento with money coming in and favors going out. In the ad, Schwarzenegger says the "game" has to end.
"I have nothing against lobbyists, I have nothing against special interests. I am listening to everyone, but you can't take money from these guys because then you owe them. You cannot represent the people of California. It's over," he says.
Schwarzenegger has taken donations from individuals and businesses across the state, but says the difference is that he is willing to tell donors when he disagrees with them.
Schwarzenegger has committed to only one debate, a Sept. 17 affair in which questions will be provided to the candidates in advance. The event, hosted by the California Broadcasters Association, is the only forum to make that offer.
Over the weekend, Lt. Gov Cruz Bustamante (search), who received $2 million worth of contributions from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians (search) on Tuesday, criticized Schwarzenegger for refusing to appear at the Wednesday debate in Walnut Creek, about 30 miles from San Francisco. The event is being hosted by the Contra Costa Times, KTVU television and KQED public radio.
Six candidates will participate in the two-part debate. The debate will start with a half-hour of questioning by journalists and Davis voters, who will defend his record. The second half of the debate will consist of five of the 135 candidates who have received at least 4 percent support in either a recent poll or a statewide election.
The five, who will be questioned and debate among themselves without Davis, are Bustamante, GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock, former baseball commissioner and Republican Peter Ueberroth, television personality Arianna Huffington, who is running as an independent and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.
Schwarzenegger, who appeared on two conservative talk radio shows Tuesday, defended his decision not to participate.
"I'm going to visit TV stations, radio stations, schools, malls, knock on doors and let people know to go out and vote. October 7 is the time that you can change, that's the important thing," he said.
Republican strategists privately fear that opponents will paint Schwarzenegger as too timid to debate. Estrich said the approach draws attention to a lingering perception.
"When you're known as the candidate without substance, and you don't show up at a debate, the risk is it will reinforce your reputation as the candidate without substance," she said.
Even though Schwarzenegger has opted out of the debate Wednesday, organizers say they'd welcome a last-minute change of heart.
"We're holding a chair and will accommodate Arnold if he chooses to come," said Michael Kelly, executive producer of KTVU.
While Davis is appearing Wednesday night at the debate, he is conspicuously absent from two new 30-second ads that instead feature his former rival Feinstein, whom he unsuccessfully challenged in the Democratic Senate primary in a campaign marked by its negativity.
"This recall is bad for California. The governor deserves the chance to keep working on issues we care about — education, health care, important new privacy legislation. On the recall, just say 'no,'" Feinstein says in the ad. The two ads began airing on Wednesday in the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey media markets.
Though Davis is nowhere in the spot, his aides deny the governor is missing in action.
"The question was are we in some way trying to hide him, and the answer is absolutely no. He is out there all the time and he may be in future ads," said Larry Grisolano, the "No on Recall" campaign manager.
Davis campaign director Steve Smith said Davis' name was not deliberately left out of the ads, rather that Feinstein had written the scripts herself and wanted to present the case against the recall in her own words.
Davis was on the campaign trail this weekend, blasting Schwarzenegger as the political stepchild of Pete Wilson, the former governor who is advising Schwarzenegger. Davis said Wilson was bad for jobs in the state, and by extension, Schwarzenegger is anti-labor.
But Democratic sources told Fox News that Davis surrendered the soundstage to Feinstein because internal numbers showed voters might recoil if they saw Davis, whose popularity is hovering in the low 20-percent range. Internal data also showed Feinstein may rally loyal Democrats in ways Davis can not.
"I think it's a huge concession on the governor's part to allow Dianne Feinstein to go on the air with an ad that doesn't name him," said Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. "When your numbers are where his are, the best commercial you could do would be to talk about the recall itself and the damage that could be caused by it."
The Feinstein ad for Davis pointedly ignores the emerging Democratic strategy of urging a no vote on the recall, in the first half of the two-part ballot, and a yes vote for Bustamante, who is among the 135 candidates running to replace Davis on the second half of the ballot.
While most Democrats are supporting the dual-vote strategy, Feinstein has undercut Bustamante's bid by declaring she will not vote for a replacement candidate.
Davis on Tuesday also announced the appointment of Leon Panetta (search), a former White House chief of staff and budget director under President Clinton, to lead a promised budget reform effort for California.
Panetta, who was a representative from Monterey County, said he would assemble a bipartisan team of experts to examine the state's boom and bust economics. Officials have acknowledged that state spending is a problem and the state could face a more than $8 billion deficit in the 2004-05 fiscal year.
Fox News' Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.