Schwarzenegger heads the election gunslingers in farcical race for California's hot seat

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If California were a cow town in the Old West, this would be the moment when hostile posses, gathering from all directions, would finger their weapons and nervously wait for the signal to pounce.

Imagine the unpopular, ineffectual sheriff - in this case, Governor Gray Davis - holed up in his mansion, abandoned by almost all his townsfolk, pondering his future. And then imagine the bizarre collection of gunslingers vying to run him out of town and take his job - a cast of characters that may yet include a wheelchair-bound pornographer, a dodgy car alarm salesman, a sharp-tongued Greek-American society hostess, her Texas millionaire ex-husband and an Austrian-born action movie star.

That's perhaps the best metaphor to describe the extraordinary campaign to boot Mr Davis out of his job in a free-for-all election procedure established by the state constitution 90 years ago but never before put to the test. As the Republican political consultant Dan Schnur told reporters: "This is the scene at the OK Corral, right before the first cowboy grabs his gun. They're all standing in the corral with their fingers hovering just above their weapons. And as soon as the first person draws, bullets will start flying in every direction." Yesterday, the shooting began in earnest.

With four days to go before the candidates' filing deadline, the big names at last began to reveal their intentions. First was Arianna Huffington, the acerbic, eminently well-connected columnist and author who doesn't just want to depose the sheriff but dreams of turning the prevailing political order on its head. A former darling of conservatives who has made a dramatic leap into left-wing anti-establishment rabble-rousing, Ms Huffington announced her candidacy in South Central Los Angeles last night.

Next came the decision by one of the biggest gunslingers, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic Senator, to ride away from the whole spectacle. Several prominent Democrats had begged Senator Feinstein to offer herself as an alternative in case Governor Davis, also a Democrat, did not survive the recall process. But she chose the high road, holding her nose before a process she characterised as "a terrible mistake".

Later in the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator himself, announced on late-night chat show hosted by his friend Jay Leno's. Pundits started fantasising about a clash of funky accents, his German-inflected one versus Ms Huffington's lilting Greek.

Mr Schwarzenegger, 56, told Leno that it was the toughest he'd made since deciding to get a bikini wax in 1978.

"The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing," he said. "The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis. He is failing them terribly, and this is why he needs to be recalled and this is why I am going to run for governor."

Schwarzenegger told Leno that he's not afraid of Davis allies attacking him as "a womaniser" or "a terrible person." "I know that they're going to throw everything at me," he said.

The Democrats, meanwhile, will have to decide whether to let Mr Davis fend for himself, or draft in a high-profile name such as Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff.

It would be wrong to see any of this as an orderly procession of politics-as-usual. There is nothing remotely usual about these uncharted political waters, which Senator Feinstein said were becoming "more and more like a carnival every day".

She's not wrong. Since the only requirements for candidacy are $3,500 and 65 signatures, county registrars' offices across the state have been inundated with about 500 requests for filing documents. That raises the prospect of a ballot paper so unwieldy that some voters might be unable to lift it, much less sort through it and pick a favourite candidate.

Even in remote Nevada County, east of San Francisco, the county clerk, Lorraine Jewett-Burdick, was so run off her feet she told reporters she had considered running for governor herself "so I wouldn't have to administer the thing. But my staff told me there'd be a bullet in my back before I reached the door."

There seems to be no limit to what constitutes a candidacy. Larry Flynt, the wheelchair-bound publisher of Hustler magazine, is selling himself as "the smut pedlar with a heart".

"I might be paralysed from the waist down," he said, "but unlike Gray Davis, I'm not paralysed from the neck up."

Along with the farce are elements of genuine brooding, just as in the best Westerns. If the leading candidates have hesitated to declare themselves, it is partly because of the tawdry history that binds them together.

Ms Feinstein's aversion to running was motivated in part by an ugly recall effort she survived when she was Mayor of San Francisco in 1983. Ms Huffington said she didn't want to run if Senator Feinstein was in the race, in part because she has memories of her former husband Michael being humiliated in his Senate run against Ms Feinstein in 1994. Michael Huffington had threatened to join the race himself, something that Arianna said would have inhibited her because of the possible effect on their teenage daughters. A deus ex machina could still call a halt to the craziness, in the form of the state Supreme Court. Governor Davis has filed the most prominent of a slew of petitions to modify, delay or cancel the recall election. The court has asked for materials from various parties to be filed by today and may pronounce on the constitutionality of the election as early as tomorrow.

Who's in, who's out

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican. The film star said yesterday he would stand.

Richard Riordan, Republican. The former mayor of Los Angeles could end up the leading conservative moderate in the race.

Darrell Issa, Republican. A right-winger with a dodgy past. The chances of Issa winning are next to nil.

Dianne Feinstein, Democrat. Senior Californian Senator who ruled herself out yesterday.

Leon Panetta, Democrat. Former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

Arianna Huffington, Independent. Wants to clean up US politics.

Larry Flynt, Democrat. The Hustler publisher is well-connected in Democratic Party circles.