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Voters eye debate with skepticism




The five-way face-off of candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis drew crowds last night to bars, lounges and living rooms across California to see whether he would score or fumble.

In the immediate post-event quarterbacking, some thought the 75-minute debate broadcast live on national cable networks was too much of a brawl, while others were amused.

"Well, I saw more heat than light in the debate," said Anita Palihnich of Tuolumne, a retired 69-year-old Democrat.

Democrat Aaron Leatherman, 49, of Angels Camp and a foreman in the PG&E gas department in Modesto, was entertained.

"It was fun to watch. I didn't like the scripted questions, but when the candidates got talking to each other, it was pretty lively," he said.

A common complaint was that voters were left with little solid information about where the candidates stand.

"I saw a bunch of personalities, but don't think anybody said much of anything," said investor Sandy Olson, a 35-year-old Republican from Tuolumne.

The conclusion of a small sampling of viewers in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and around the state: Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante pleasantly surprised some Republicans, and conservative Sen. Tom McClintock and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo showed their true colors. But the constant shouting between Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and independent Arianna Huffington was an unfortunate distraction.

"McClintock was very effective if you believe his Republican line. Arianna Huffington came across as a delightful lady who was just a little short on knowledge," said Avery resident and Democrat Bill Cantrell, 72, an expert witness in insurance court cases. "Cruz Bustamante came across — much to my surprise — as an absolute gentleman. He clearly won the debate in my view."

Several voters said Schwarzenegger entered the debate with a bigger burden to overcome than his rivals, because he refused to participate in two previous televised debates and all candidates received last night's questions in advance. Some were left still feeling his campaign was long on celebrity and short on specifics, even after he landed a couple of one-liners.

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