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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 03:22 GMT 04:22 UK
California hopefuls clash
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Schwarzenegger has been accused of refusing to debate
Candidates for the governorship of California - including actor Arnold Schwarzenegger - have clashed over the state's troubled economy during a heated televised debate.

Wednesday's debate could prove crucial to the outcome of the race, with as many as one in five voters still undecided, observers say.

Next month's so-called "recall vote" will ask the people of California if they wish to remove Democratic Governor Gray Davis - and if they do, to select a replacement from more than 130 candidates.

Mr Schwarzenegger's absence from previous debates had led to accusations from his rivals that he is running scared ahead of the 7 October poll.

During the debate in the state capital, Sacramento, the candidates often shouted over each other, and argued over balancing the state's $38bn deficit.

Contentious format

Mr Schwarzenegger, a Republican, accused his rivals of "pulling the wool over the people's eyes" and independent Arianna Huffington countering that Republicans "do not believe that morality relates to business".

Arianna Huffington
In this election we are seeing the Rise of the Fundraising Machines
Arianna Huffington

At times the attacks got personal, with Mr Schwarzenegger and Ms Huffington trading charges over personal issues before the moderator admonished the pair.

Ms Huffington and Democrat Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante both accused Mr Schwarzenegger of not knowing the facts on economic issues such as workers compensation laws, charges which Mr Schwarzenegger countered bluntly.

"[This is] total pre-election bogus and you know it," he said.

"On 7 October you guys are out."

Alongside Mr Schwarzenegger, Ms Huffington and Mr Bustamante, Wednesday night's 90-minute debate at California State University's Sacramento campus featured Republican State Senator Tom McClintock and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.

In a controversial format, candidates were given a dozen questions in advance on topics such as how to balance the budget, the meaning of a colour-blind society and services for senior citizens, all of which are crucial issues in the state.

Mr Davis himself did not participate in the debate.

Negative attacks

The election, which has been the subject of an unsuccessful court challenge, was called after sufficient signatures were collected by critics of Mr Davis who accuse him of mishandling the state's budget.

In the run-up to the Wednesday's debate, the candidates made a number of increasingly negative attacks on each other via the media.

In an article published on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, Mr Schwarzenegger accused Mr Davis of treating businesses and entrepreneurs in California as "enemies of the state".

He referred to Mr Bustamante as "Gray Davis - the sequel".

Mr Bustamante, along with Mr McClintock, was also attacked in a Schwarzenegger campaign advertisement for taking election funds from Indian gambling interests.

Mr Bustamante responded with an advert accusing Mr Schwarzenegger of being out of touch with the ordinary people of California.

The BBC's David Willis
"Arnie was soon being baited by independent candidate Arianna Huffington"

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