It has been perhaps the biggest question hovering over California's recall election from the start: Can Arnold Schwarzenegger - veteran Hollywood movie idol, king of canned one-liners ("Hasta la vista, baby." "I'll be baaack.") - effectively campaign without a script?
Wednesday, the question will likely get its clearest answer yet. Mr. Schwarzenegger is scheduled to make what is expected to be his only appearance alongside the election's four other top candidates - some call it a "scripted forum" instead of a debate because queries have been submitted in advance.
The debate comes as the recall drive was energized by a federal court ruling Tuesday. An 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a prior ruling that would have postponed the Oct. 7 recall vote because of outdated ballot machines in six counties.
Now, with the legal road apparently clear, state voters will be all the more attuned to Wednesday night's debate. Given a decline in the number of voters favoring the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, and with poll numbers tightening, analysts say the appearance could become the election's pivotal event.
"More than any election debate in recent memory, this is likely to be definitively consequential," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. Holding serious political reporters at arm's length, taking his message directly to voters in carefully staged events, Mr. Schwarz-enegger has been needled by critics and opponents alike for playing it safe while other top candidates joined in three formal debates, facing open questions from experienced political journalists.
"Schwarzenegger will either prove himself or choke," says Mr. Pitney. "Either way, the key momentum of the race is likely to shift at its most crucial moment."
For Wednesday's event, voters have submitted questions in advance; each candidate receives and will answer 12. After one minute to answer each question, the five will discuss issues in an open forum. Analysts say participants are likely to try to lure Schwarzenegger off prepared marks into unfamiliar territory.
"It is impossible to know whether or not Arnold's lack of participation in three previous debates has hurt him worse than participating might have," says William Schneider, a pollster and election analyst. "But ... voters have a negative view of his refusal to participate in debates thus far."
In a debate between the other four candidates last week - the third one Schwarzenegger has skipped - Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) went so far as to suggest that the same four candidates (himself, Independent Arianna Huffington, the Green Party's Peter Camejo, and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock) leave Schwarzenegger alone in the debate hall at California State University in Sacramento. They should walk outside, he suggested, and hold a "real, unscripted" debate by themselves.
Even Schwarzenegger's fellow Republican, Senator McClintock, balked at distributing questions in advance. "This should not be called a debate, it's a scripted forum," said his campaign chairman, John Feliz.
None of the other four dismissed Mr. Bustamante's suggestion of vacating the debate hall. Short of that, many analysts think the other four may thwart the forum's rules and confront Mr. Schwarzenegger on camera. The four have made similar gestures in recent debates by directing such questions to Schwarzenegger's empty chair.
Pitney and others liken the importance of Wednesday's appearance by Mr. Schwarzenegger to pivotal moments in key national elections. In a 1980 Republican Presidential primary debate in Nashua, N.H., for instance, Ronald Reagan effectively ended the serious challenge from primary opponent George Bush by besting him with a spontaneous remark.
"I paid for this microphone," said Mr. Reagan, in an oft-quoted quip that many saw as effectively squashing a complaint from Mr. Bush about the debate's format.
Similarly, in 1988, in a debate between vice presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, then-Senator Bentsen was widely declared the winner with a "spontaneous" remark that had been planned in advance.
"I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," said Mr. Bentsen, aiming at a comparison the relatively youthful Quayle had drawn between himself and the young senator from Massachusetts who won the presidency in 1960.
Similarly, say analysts, Mr. Schwarzenegger must be ready for such moments of "planned spontaneity." Schwarzenegger handlers say their man is ready for anything and has become more skilled in recent weeks by giving Q and A town meetings.
"If [the other candidates are] not willing to join him, [Arnold] will talk to California all by himself," says Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.
Schwarzenegger has long claimed he's been holding out for a major debate, one widely televised, instead of the forums held to date - "just little warm-ups," he calls them. Ostensibly, his camp chose this one, sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association, in part because Schwarzenegger felt it would reach the most voters.
"We go for the Super Bowl of the debates," he told Larry King last week. "When I was bodybuilding, I didn't go into the Mr. Venice Beach contest [or] the Mr. Seattle contest. I went for the Mr. Olympia."