Terminator's crass humour backfires as candidates clash

He came. He spouted statistics. He let loose his one-liners. With less than two weeks to go before California's extraordinary gubernatorial recall election, a hitherto absent Arnold Schwarzenegger at last agreed to debate with his rivals in the race to succeed the unpopular Gray Davis. It didn't kill him, but it probably did him few favours.

For 90 minutes, the action star was jumped on, savaged, patronised and, for long stretches, simply ignored. He may not have been demolished but the challenge proved a lot harder than the muscle-flexing competitions of his youth.

The four others who gathered in Sacramento on Wednesday night - Democrat Cruz Bustamante (the current front-runner), rival Republican Tom McClintock, the Green Party's Peter Camejo and the gadfly columnist Arianna Huffington - were predisposed to jump all over the Terminator since he snubbed the chance to participate in their two previous debates. He preferred to schmooze with showbiz pals on talk shows rather than argue the finer points of budget discipline, worker's compensation insurance and state versus local government spending. (Details, details.)

With everything to prove, Schwarzenegger came out fighting, bemoaning "the worst business climate" in California and telling his rivals already working in Sacramento, the state capital: "You guys have an addiction problem." An addiction to spending, that is.

Ms Huffington, however, was determined to match his aggression, ridiculing his analysis of the state economy as "simply untrue" and denouncing his platform for being "all over the map" - a mishmash of empty populist slogans designed as a front for the powerful Republican interests behind his candidacy, she claimed.

When he tried to talk over her for the umpteenth time, she snapped at him: "This is the way you treat women, we know that." That was a below-the-belt reference to multiple press reports of boorish behaviour around the opposite sex, and the coarse language Schwarzenegger has used to talk about women in magazine interviews.

Schwarzenegger, making a stab at humour, countered that he had the perfect role for Ms Huffington in the as yet unmade Terminator 4. The humour backfired, however, since it seemed Schwarzenegger was referring to his much-reported desire to thrust the head of a female Terminator robot into a toilet bowl.

Ms Huffington, whose own campaign has failed to take off, apparently decided to be the kamikaze candidate - going down in flames of deliberately obnoxious rhetoric but taking as many others as possible down with her. She landed just as many zingers on Mr Bustamante, the current Lieutenant Governor, who found himself agreeing that the state was a mess while maintaining he and his party had nothing to do with the catalogue of bad decisions that prompted the call for Governor Davis's removal.

By far the most impressive were two men who stand little or no chance of winning: Mr McClintock, a forceful, straight conservative, and Mr Camejo, who embarrassed the two tax-averse Republicans by pointing out the richest Californians actually pay a lower income tax rate than everyone else.

Mr Schwarzenegger, by contrast, sounded shallow and over-rehearsed, like a new kid on the block trying a touch too hard to impress the big boys.

The proceedings may actually have helped Governor Davis defeat the recall altogether and keep his job.

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