SPENCER MICHELS: Of the 135 candidates running for governor, five were in suburban Walnut Creek last evening for the first of several proposed debates. They were the candidates who had received at least 4 percent in either a recent poll or the last statewide vote. Absent was actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he'll take part in only one debate. The man with the most to lose, Governor Gray Davis, was quizzed alone since he's not technically running against those who want to replace him. He's on the first part of the ballot: "Should the governor be recalled?"
SPOKESMAN: Governor, thank you for being with us today.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: My pleasure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis said he should have responded more quickly to the state's energy crisis, but he blamed Republicans for trying to make up for losses in last year's election by going after him in the recall.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: I do believe that at the heart of this, in the beginning, were a group of Republicans that were upset they could not win last November's election.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis was asked about his personal reaction to the recall and his low standing in the polls.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: It is not an easy time for my wife Sharon or I, and it is not fun seeing everyone condemn you up and down the 24-hour news cycle. But I know that the problems we deal with pale in comparison to the problems of the people that I represent. I've gotten their message. I know they are angry. This has been a humbling experience.
SPENCER MICHELS: The governor vowed to reconnect with the people.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: I think the biggest thing that I will change is to stay connected to the people of the state.
SPENCER MICHELS: If Davis loses the recall, the candidate with the most votes will replace him. In the debate, the key topic was how to solve California's enormous budget crisis. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, a Republican running as an independent, explained what he'd do if elected governor.
PETER UEBERROTH: I'm about locking up the democrats and the Republicans, the first day, emergency session. Lock them up. Keep them there until we have a budget that works, and it is not going to be pretty. We have to pass legislation that says that we have to turn California around and become job friendly.
SPENCER MICHELS: For two months this summer California's legislature wrangled over how balance the budget, with Republicans refusing to raise taxes despite a $38 billion shortfall. Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, the most conservative of the candidates, said he would stand by a no-tax pledge he has often made.
TOM McCLINTOCK: I will not raise taxes under any circumstances. This state is already spending a larger portion of people's earnings than at any time in history. I pointed out on many occasions within moments of taking the oath of office, I will rescind the governor's illegal tripling of the car tax and then act to void the $42 billion of overpriced electricity contracts.
SPENCER MICHELS: Green Party candidate Peter Camejo said he would raise taxes on the rich.
PETER CAMEJO: The fact is I'm for a fair tax, which is that the wealthiest people in California should be paying the same that you are, the average person. That would balance the budget. That is where we have to go.
SPENCER MICHELS: Independent Arianna Huffington launched a verbal attack against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante for accepting a $2 million campaign donation from Indian tribes which run casinos.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: It is nothing but legalized bribery. You have made a mockery of campaign finance laws by using a ludicrous loophole to get that money into your campaign and bypass the limits, and it is really absolutely absurd as governor of California you would continue to deprive our general funds of taxes that this tribe should be paying.
CRUZ BUSTAMANTE: Tell me how you really feel. ( Laughter )
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I will. Later.
SPENCER MICHELS: The only topic that all of the candidates, even the most conservative, were able to agree on was upholding California's legalization of marijuana for medical use.
TOM McCLINTOCK: The people of California spoke clearly on that subject. The federal government has no right to intervene.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lieutenant Governor Bustamante, who has not been on good terms with the governor, was asked how he differed from Davis. He gave one instance:
CRUZ BUSTAMANTE: There was a moment in the energy crisis, I believe, that was a pivotal moment. The energy companies were acting like terrorists. They were holding us up, and they were blackmailing us. And they basically said that if you do not pay us this money, if you do not increase our contracts, then we're going to turn off the lights. I think I would have called their bluff.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: But you are the lieutenant governor. Why didn't you speak up?
CRUZ BUSTAMANTE: I did. In fact, I sued the energy companies. I was the first person in the state of California on a class action lawsuit.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite his differences with Davis, Bustamante is calling for a vote against the recall, but for him in case the governor loses. The candidates' next debate is scheduled to take place in on September 24 in Sacramento.