Walnut Creek, California

THE POLICE ANTICIPATED a circus atmosphere at the first recall debate and blocked off nearby streets and set up multiple barricades around the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. But apart from a small group of 40 to 50 recall opponents chanting "No! Recall!" across the street from the playhouse, all was calm. (Interestingly, many of the protestors were button-sporting Howard Dean supporters.)

Inside the theater, the circus was in full swing. Governor Gray Davis appeared onstage first in a half-hour solo segment and tried his best to channel Bill Clinton. Feeling California's pain, the governor started by saying that the "problems that . . . (I) deal with pale in comparison to the problems of the people that I represent." He spoke of "townhall meetings" that he wished to hold with Californians. And he tried to hold both the left and the center, saying, "I may say I'm in the center, but not on every issue" and then, two sentences later, "I've called myself a progressive most of my career."

In another Clintonesque move, Davis blamed Republicans for his woes. "The Republican budget" was responsible for college tuition increases, and the "prior (Republican) administration" was responsible for the much-reviled increase in car registration fees. Always manipulating the rules, Republicans tried to "impeach (Clinton) in 1998 . . . Now we won in November and they wanted to have a do-over."

One example Davis cited in his favor was that California wasn't part of the late-summer blackout: "Our lights did not go off two weeks ago . . . because we have made the investments . . . to prepare for California's future."

AFTER THE FIRST SEGMENT, Davis left the stage and the five replacement candidates (Arianna Huffington, Peter Camejo, Tom McClintock, Peter Ueberroth, and Cruz Bustamante) appeared together for a 90-minute session, each playing to type.

McClintock was the lone candidate to support Proposition 187 (a measure that denied benefits to illegal immigrants). He was also the sole pro-life and anti-gun-control candidate and the only candidate to oppose granting drivers' license privileges to illegal immigrants and equal benefits to homosexual couples.

In contrast, Ueberroth, the other Republican, appeared unprepared and unwilling to discuss social issues in depth. He responded to those questions by hammering economic themes, saying, "we're in a crisis, . . . we're out of money," and "we're driving jobs out of the state."

Democrat Cruz Bustamante kept his answers brief. (Which was probably a good strategy: The one time he went long, in his closing statement, he stumbled noticeably, twice stating that Nevada citizens pay "higher" gas prices than Californians when he meant to say "lower.")

The other two candidates, Camejo and Huffington, had earlier announced an alliance of sorts--if one of them has a chance at winning the election, the other will drop out of the race, offering an endorsement. Since their combined support has never topped 10 percent, this seems optimistic.

Huffington was prone to lengthy responses (at one point, Bustamante even offered to yield her the rest of his time) and seemed to think that her best play was to concentrate fire on the lieutenant governor, questioning the "millions of dollars" in campaign contributions he received from Indian tribes and "tobacco companies." She also ribbed him for spoiling the voters' only chance "to elect a truly independent governor: myself." She endorsed increased taxes on large corporations and the closing of "corporate tax loopholes."

Unfortunately for Camejo, the lasting memories of his performance may be his rambling closing statement where he looked beyond fixing California's problems to rectifying the Founding Fathers' mistakes: "If a person gets 20 percent of the vote, they should get 20 percent of the assembly the way it is all over the world, except in America. We have a 200-year dysfunctional, money-dominated, winner-take-all system. We need to have runoffs and instant runoff voting, a system used throughout the world."

Camejo's plan is certainly ambitious, and perhaps a little crackers. But at least he showed up.

David Hackett is a writer living in California.

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