When politics turns into a circus of the absurd

The last date for registration is tomorrow, but the deadline hardly matters. More than 250 people have already thrown their hats into the ring - the most recent and most prominent being Arianna Huffington, the right-wing Republican turned left-wing independent, and, after a last-minute change of mind or tactical volte-face, the Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oh, and an earlier entrant was the pornography tycoon Larry Flynt. We are talking, of course, of California, where the incumbent Governor, Gray - "grey by name and grey by nature" - Davis faces a recall vote on 7 October.

It is easy to ridicule the political circus surrounding this rare recall election. Easy, too, to feel a twinge of envy for a political culture vibrant enough to attract high-profile, colourful candidates who express themselves in admirable plain American. Announcing his intentions on the US Tonight show, the Terminator said he was running because "the politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing" - a view that many Californians would share.

Nor should we British be too quick to dismiss showbusiness types as necessarily ill-equipped for the job. Schwarzenegger may never have held political office, but he is married to a scion of the Kennedy clan, so he is hardly unversed in political lore. And while we would not have signed up to Ronald Reagan's politics, he was far from being the country's least competent President - and he knew how to give a good speech.

The plight of California is such, however, that its voters cannot afford to indulge their frivolity. The state budget is a disaster; schools are desperately short of money; public services have steadily deteriorated. The energy shortages that precipitated Gray Davis's early troubles may have passed, but the bills and the lawsuits linger.

Not all of this is the Governor's fault. The fall in the stock market, declining contributions from central government and higher unemployment are destabilising many state governments. California, of all states, though, should be an exception. With its population, its climate and its natural resources, it was - and should be - a rich state. This is why Californians are so tempted to look beyond conventional politicians and why they should resist the temptation to let ambition and money outweigh managerial and political expertise.

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