Politics in California plunged into an unprecedented mixture of high drama and low farce yesterday as Gray Davis prepared to undergo America's first gubernatorial recall election in more than 80 years.
Barring an intervention by California's Supreme Court, the Democratic Governor faces what amounts to a state-wide vote of confidence in early October - less than nine months after he was re-elected to a second term. If a majority votes against his recall, or dismissal, he will remain in office. If not a host of potential rivals, including the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, are vying to take over at the helm of a state facing the biggest budgetary crisis in its history.
The recall vote became inevitable on Wednesday evening when California's Secretary of State, Kevin Shelley, confirmed that organisers had collected 1.3 million valid signatures for their petition, far more than the 897,158 required under the recall provision added to the state's constitution in 1911.
But within hours the state's leading officials were squabbling over the precise format for the recall ballot, which must be put before voters within 60 to 80 days. The date of 7 October was announced yesterday.
Mr Shelley insists that the ballot should be in two parts: not just a yes/no choice on whether Mr Davis should stay in office but a second section as well, where voters would choose from a list of candidates to replace the Governor. But Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor who sets the election date, has hinted that the replacement election could be held later.
Republicans and possible Democratic contenders immediately tore into Mr Bustamante - who would be Mr Davis's provisional stand-in - accusing him of seeking to rig the game to secure his own election.
Who enters the race was anyone's guess yesterday. So far only two candidates have declared - Peter Camejo of the Green Party, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Davis on 5 November last year and the Republican state representative Darrell Issa, the San Diego businessman who funded the campaign for a recall.
But that is likely to be only a start. Potential Republican runners include William Simon, who was defeated by Mr Davis last year, and the popular former mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. All eyes, however, are on the "Terminator". In the past few weeks Mr Schwarzenegger has dropped repeated heavy hints that he would enter the race but yesterday his spokesman said he had not made up his mind. According to the Los Angeles Times, the actor's wife, Maria Shriver, a television reporter and a niece of President John F Kennedy, is opposed to the idea. San Francisco activists are trying to line up Arianna Huffington Stassinopoulos, the columnist once described as "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus". For the moment Democrats are staying out the race, a show of loyalty to Mr Davis as he tries to present the recall attempt - the first in the US since the Governor of North Dakota was thrown out in 1921 - as an attempt by a right-wing clique to take over one of the country's most reliably Democratic states.
But that could quickly change if it appears that the present Governor, whose approval rates have sunk lately to 27 per cent or less, is doomed. Mr Bustamante is known to have his eye on the job but a far more popular replacement would be Dianne Feinstein, California's senior senator in Washington.
But the bar for running is so low that the ballot could be packed with fringe candidates, who merely have to come up with 65 signatures of registered voters of their own party, and a $3,500 (£2,100) deposit. Theoretically Mr Davis's replacement could be elected with 10 per cent or less of the vote.
The embattled Governor was emphasising that very point yesterday, and stressing that the state, facing a budget deficit of $38bn (£23bn) this year, could not afford a frivolous election that would cost $35m to organise.
"I'll fight like a Bengal tiger," said Mr Davis, who is an aggressive campaigner if not a very effective governor, after the recall election became official. "People have always underestimated me, every time they say, 'I'm road kill', I win." But if he prevails in this election, it will be the Governor's greatest escape act yet.
Mr Davis was first elected by a landslide in 1998 but his victory last year was due largely to the inept campaign run by Mr Simon, who was his Republican opponent. In 2000-2001 the Governor was widely blamed for California's energy crisis. He is now accused of deliberately concealing from voters the true extent of the state's budget crisis to win a second term in office. The financial crisis has already led to a tripling of the state's annual car tax.
HOW RECALL WORKS
California is the most populous US state with 33.9 million people and its economy would be the fifth largest in the world if it was a separate country.
An election to remove a public official is unknown in Britain and highly unusual in the US. A total of 25,000 polling places will have to be found and 100,000 election workers recruited. The vote will take place on 7 October, and potential candidates must declare by 8 August.
To do so they must submit 65 signatures of registered voters and a deposit of $3,500, or 10,000 signatures in lieu of the deposit. The ballot will also include initiatives that would ban government agencies from collecting most racial and ethnic details on citizens, and insert into the state's constitution a provision that would increase spending on the infrastructure.
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