SACRAMENTO, Calif. - With 135 candidates running to replace Gov. Gray Davis, groups organizing debates for the state's unprecedented recall election worked yesterday to put together forums that won't break the stage.
A statewide broadcasters group announced plans to limit its Sept. 17 debate in Sacramento to the six front-runners among the mass of candidates. And a coalition of civil-rights groups and minority businesses and media scheduled a two-hour debate among leading contenders Sept. 9 in Los Angeles.
Davis is not among the candidates on the one-of-a-kind ballot; voters will decide separately whether he should be removed from office. He will not participate in either debate announced yesterday, instead facing off with recall proponents in a taped 30-minute debate scheduled to air in September.
The limited candidate list for the debates could anger some of the dozens of lesser-known candidates - ranging from a retired meat packer to a middleweight sumo wrestler - who won't get the chance to address voters.
Jay Leno was more democratic, inviting all the candidates to appear in the audience of NBC's Tonight Show next month. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on the show last week.
For the Los Angeles debate, sponsors New California Media and the Greenlining Institute invited Schwarzenegger, businessman Bill Simon, state Sen. Tom McClintock and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth - all Republicans - as well as Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, independent Arianna Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.
Spokesmen for Schwarzenegger, Simon and Ueberroth said the candidates planned to participate in debates and were reviewing the invitation but had not made any commitments. McClintock will attend, deputy campaign manager Joe Giardiello said.
The Sacramento debate, sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association, will include candidates with at least 10 percent support in three statewide polls before Sept. 5. If fewer than six candidates meet that standard, the association will use an independent poll to determine which among those receiving more than 5 percent should be invited.
Gubernatorial hopefuls will answer videotaped questions from Californians in the association's 90-minute live debate at California State University, Sacramento.
"We're trying to get the people as involved as possible and make it unlike a political debate with podiums and predictable answers," said debate monitor and association President Stan Statham. "We're trying to shake it up and shake it loose."
Meanwhile, labor leaders who support Davis repeated their opposition to the recall yesterday and said they will not endorse a backup candidate.
"If you open the door to recall a person just because they lack charisma, we will be just like Italy," said Bob Balganorth, head of the state's Building and Construction Trades Council. "We will be like some banana republic continually changing leaders."