It was a lively stage debut for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More than 30 years after the Austrian bodybuilder moved to California in pursuit of the show-biz dream, the actor bowed Wednesday in Critical Choices, the one-night-only comedy-drama about five gubernatorial campaigners engaged in, as advertised, "verbal combat."

Schwarzenegger, best known for playing a catchphrase-coining robot in the Terminator franchise, appeared as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the catchphrase-coining candidate out to replace California Governor Gray Davis in the state's Oct. 7 recall election.

Costumed in a gray suit, green tie and finger ring accented by a giant blue rock, the Republican strongman dubbed himself the future "Governor Arnold" and "The Collectinator" and told a Democratic rival, "You guys put the wool over the eyes twice. The third time now, you're out!"

The 90-minute production, technically a debate, was broadcast on live TV across the state and nationally on outlets such as CNN. More than 200 invited guests and college students attended, filling the way-off-Broadway venue known as the University Ballroom at California State University Sacramento.

An ensemble piece rather than a true starring vehicle, Schwarzenegger shared the spotlight with TV pundit Arianna Huffington, as the fiery sparring partner, California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, as the mild-mannered next-door neighbor, California State Senator Tom McClintock, as the smart, nerdy coworker and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, as that certain uncle. All reacted to questions made known to them about a week ago. Stan Statham, of the California Broadcasters Association, which coproduced, appeared as the quip-dispensing host and moderator.

The highlight of the show was Schwarzenegger's clashings with Huffington. Offstage, the two are friends who run in the same Hollywood circles. Onstage, the two were contentious, sparking more fireworks than the early, good seasons of Moonlighting.

"Your personal income tax is the biggest loophole. I could drive my Hummer through it," Schwarzenegger cracked. And, later, when Huffington broached presidential policy: "You're in the wrong state. Go to New Hampshire."

Things took a dramatic turn when Huffington took offense to Schwarzenegger stepping on one of her lines. "This is the way you treat women," she said. The line, which drew boos from the audience, was a direct hit at the action hero's perceived weakness with non-male, non-action-movie fans.

Schwarzenegger, recalling the wit and wisdom of Mr. Freeze, responded in kind. "I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," he told Huffington.

"Someone said right after the debate you guys should go on the road with your comedy show," Schwarzenegger said backstage in a post-show postmortem to critics and other reporters.

Huffington was not laughing. "I have never, in hundreds of debates I've participated in, been treated the way Arnold Schwarzenegger treated me tonight," she said backstage. "That was such a clear and unambiguous indication of what he really thinks of women."

Huffington especially took offense to the T4 line, linking it to an interview she said Schwarzenegger gave about T3 in which he reveled at plunging a female Terminator's head into a toilet.

As with any show, there were mixed reviews on the leading man's performance--and not just from Huffington:

"He was really funny. He had smart comebacks and he actually did have some good viewpoints, I guess."--Jessica Caparas, a 21-year-old Cal State Sacramento student and undecided (still) voter who attended the show.
"I was completely appalled with his disrespect for women, with his not giving turn to any other candidate, speaking louder, speaking over them."--Megan Mitchell, a 21-year-old Cal State Sacramento grad student and undecided (still) voter who watched the production from the Hive, one of several on-campus venues to host group screenings.

The leading man had his own take: "I think that the debate went terrific."

Sounding very much the Hollywood denizen, Schwarzenegger, who'd previously declined to tour with the governor hopefuls, predicted big box office. "I think as you can see the other debates did wrong--only one share ratings, or something like that, but this is going to have a high rating," he said.

Spin doctors descended on the press room to offer their own prescriptions. Huffington supporters hammered away at what they saw as Schwarzenegger's deplorable attitude toward their candidate. Schwarzenegger's famous friends made the case that their candidate proved himself a serious contender capable of quoting numbers, such as $38 billion (for the state's budget deficit).

"It was Arnold's first time up there. I thought he acquitted himself admirably. I would defy anyone to tell me who was the first-timer up there. I thought that he did a great job," said comic Dennis Miller.

Miller, recalling the wit and wisdom of his Monday Night Football stint, went on to describe politics as "an ideological Serengeti plain" and described Bustamante as "Sancho Panza to Gray Davis' Don Quixote."

And while the offstage Schwarzenegger declined to attack Huffington ("I think Arianna was very entertaining"), his supporters were inclined to offer their critiques.

"I didn't find Huffington to be all that well-mannered. I don't like my discourse that shrill," Miller said.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said he thought the "outrageous" Huffington was "very mean" to Schwarzenegger. When asked about the T4 reference ("Don't they [the non-Arnold Terminators] usually end up dead?"), Riordan laughed, "Well, that might be the hope."

The Terminator movies were everywhere Wednesday, from the tip of their star's tongue to the handmade signs waved by the media-savvy "Join Arnold" supporters ("Terminate Runaway Spending").

Network, the Oscar-winning 1976 satire, also played a vital bit as Schwarzenegger, as he has been wont to do during the campaign, invoked the "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" crowd-pleaser.

Not all of Schwarzenegger's lines were as snappy. "You guys have an addiction problem. You should go to an addiction place," and "I need your help. I need a lot of help," failed to match "Hasta la vista, baby," strangely unused Wednesday night, for quotability. Even without his A material, Schwarzenegger engaged the locals, with shouts of "Arnie!" heard over the din at the Hive, located adjacent to the University Ballroom.

While Schwarzenegger supporters were the most vocal, Cal State Sacramento was the destination for fans of numerous candidates and causes. The afternoon scene outside the auditorium played like Bring It On, with pro-Arnold, anti-Arnold and pro-McClintock forces competing for the TV news cameras in a cheerleading contest, minus the acrobatics and midriff-baring costumes. For all the crush of activity (represented by the more than 500 credentialed media types from across the globe) and livestock (represented by the four chickens clucking their way by the student union), the event did not match Monday's Tonight Show, featuring 81 of the state's lesser-known and/or greatly more eccentric candidates, for sheer carnival fun.

Give adult film star Mary Carey and Los Angeles billboard fixture Angelyne credit for trying to make things otherwise. Both were among the uninvited candidates who'd lobbied, unsuccessfully, for invites from the broadcasters association.

"Over the past few weeks of campaigning, I've proved conclusively that I am a very serious candidate," Angelyne said in an apparently serious statement Tuesday. "...I more than deserve to be included as part of the Sacramento debate."

As proof of her commitment, Angelyne's camp said she declined to participate in the Tonight stunt because the event was neither "serious" nor "glamorous" enough for the pink Corvette aficionado.

Carey, meanwhile, spent her Wednesday in Los Angeles, instead of Sacramento, taping the Game Show Network debate, Who Wants to Be Governor of California? The special, also featuring Gary Coleman and three other ballot entries, is scheduled to air Oct. 1.

At Cal State Sacramento, meanwhile, the big show came and went in less time than it takes to screen Kindergarten Cop. Schwarzenegger has committed to playing no more live dates here or anywhere else on the debate circuit.

Still, he sounded just a little bit bitten by the theater bug. "This is a fantastic experience," he said. "I had a great time out there."

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