WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – In the first debate of California's recall election, candidates vying to oust Gov. Gray Davis (search) attacked front-runner Cruz Bustamante (search) for accepting Indian casino money and connected actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to an adviser's unpopular remarks on property taxes.
The skirmish came after a relaxed Davis told a separate forum with reporters and voters that the recall effort had been an awakening and that he would fight to keep his job and repair the state's problems.
The debate set the stage for the final month of the campaign and offered the best look thus far at the spectrum of opinions on the major issues in the recall, ranging from the state's budget to illegal immigrants to taxes.
Schwarzenegger did not attend the debate, and as a result could not defend himself as candidates took him to task on the tax issue. Schwarzenegger said he would attend a debate on Sept. 24 in which candidates are allowed to see the questions in advance -- unlike Wednesday's forum.
Five candidates participated in the debate: Bustamante, columnist Arianna Huffington, state Sen. Tom McClintock (search), former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the Green Party's Peter Camejo.
The debate is the first of three scheduled so far in advance of the Oct. 7 vote. Candidates qualified for the debate by receiving at least 4 percent support in either a recent poll or the last statewide vote.
Analysts said Schwarzenegger's absence could hurt him and bolster McClintock, a conservative. Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Davis was thoughtful, personable and did a good job, but needed to do more.
The recall is akin to "confronting an angry crowd getting ready to throw you off a cliff and your are telling them it is a bad idea because we've gone from 47th to 25th in education," Pitney said.
"I think the big loser here was Arnold, you might see that Arnold has slipped and McClintock has improved," said Brian Janiskee, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino.
Before the start of the debate, Davis said he had not acted soon enough to deal with the state's energy crisis and pledged to keep in better touch with the people.
"I understand people are angry. I understand that people's lives are not as good as they were two years ago," said Davis, employing a theme he has repeatedly used throughout the recall campaign.
Bustamante, the Democratic lieutenant governor who leads the most recent poll, was criticized for taking advantage of a loophole in campaign finance law that allowed a tribe to pledge $2 million to his financially struggling campaign.
Huffington, an independent, said Bustamante had made a mockery of campaign finance laws, which allowed him to circumvent new contribution limits by accepting the bulk of the money in an old campaign account.
"This is nothing but legalized bribery," Huffington said.
"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante replied.
He went on to say that he has been a longtime supporter of tribes and was proud of the support he had received.
Huffington and Camejo teamed up to link Schwarzenegger to remarks his billionaire adviser Warren Buffett made that Proposition 13 might need to be reworked. Proposition is the voter-approved initiative that limits property tax hikes.
Schwarzenegger has said he wouldn't touch the law, and has tried to distance himself from Buffett's statements.
Camejo said Buffett did voters a favor by bringing up the issue. "I say give him a microphone," said Camejo, who believes the law is unfair.
Bustamante said the popular tax initiative should be retooled for commercial property, but McClintock and Ueberroth -- Republicans who were in lockstep on a number of issues -- said they would not change the tax formula.
While some of the candidates blamed Davis for the state's budget problems, Bustamante did not, instead jabbing at Schwarzenegger by saying "my option is to distinguish myself from those who are here and the guy who is not."
Even Davis indirectly took swipes at Schwarzenegger, blaming the state's problems on his predecessor, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who is now a key adviser to the actor's campaign.
Schwarzenegger gave a speech before supporters and college students Wednesday, saying he wants to give back to the state that has helped him launched his career. He literally came under attack during the event when he was hit by an egg.
Appearing after Schwarzenegger on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," Sen. Dianne Feinstein also criticized him for not appearing at the debate.
"Here's a movie action hero, and he's going to duck the first debate," she said.
During his brief question-and-answer, Davis said he would rather have raised taxes on the wealthy to solve the budget crisis than to have increased car taxes and fees on college students. He repeated claims that the recall was a right-wing effort to rewrite history after losing the fall election last year.
"It's like the Oakland Raiders saying to Tampa Bay, 'We know you beat us, but we want to play the Super Bowl again,"' Davis said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers sent two pieces of legislation to Davis' desk that could improve the governor's standing among liberal and Hispanic voters. One bill would give an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants the ability to drive, and the other would provide same-sex partners many of the same rights as married couples. Davis is expected to sign both bills.