Schwarzenegger ducks debate with other candidates

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The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger risked being cast as the Incredible Disappearing Candidate yesterday as the first formal debate in California's extraordinary campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis went ahead without him.

Mr Schwarzenegger was the only one of the six leading candidates to take Mr Davis's job on 7 October to refuse to participate. His opponents immediately accused him of cowardice, and political analysts wondered if he was really ready for prime time, especially given the glaring lack of specifics in his campaign platform.

He is the leading Republican contender in the race, but not the only one. Tom McClintock, a rock-ribbed conservative, and Peter Ueberroth, a moderate in much the same political mould as Mr Schwarzenegger, attacked his decision to stay away. "Arnold, you're a great communicator," Mr Ueberroth said in a deliberately soothing tone. "Come tell the voters why you should be governor. Come talk to voters about putting California back on track."

Mr Schwarzenegger has agreed to appear in just one public forum in the five remaining weeks of the campaign, one where candidates will be given the questions in advance. His spokesman Rob Stutzman said: "Arnold will be campaigning publicly this week. He's taking his message directly to the voters."

His strategy does indeed appear to be bypassing all conventional political channels, restricting his campaigning to staged appearances, including a speech yesterday to California State University students, and interviews with either entertainment journalists or friendly conservative radio talk-show hosts.

He has been deliberately vague about his plans to combat California's multibillion- dollar budget deficit, saying he would wait until he was elected to unveil a concrete plan.

It is far from clear whether celebrity alone can carry him to victory. Polls have shown him very slightly ahead or trailing way behind his main rival for the governorship, Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat. At the end of last week, his campaign was rocked by the unearthing of a 26-year-old interview in which he talked with candour and extraordinarily vulgar language about sleeping with groupies on the body-building circuit, including one instance of group sex at his favourite hangout, Gold's Gym in Venice. Although ignored by his rivals for the governorship, the interview shocked left-wing puritans, religious conservatives and even gay rights groups.

Mr Schwarzenegger disappeared from public view for three days. He reappeared, at the California State Fair in Sacramento on Monday.