Gray Davis's chances of clinging to his job as Governor of California improved yesterday when the latest opinion poll showed voters were locked in a dead heat over his future. A federal court of appeal also gave a strong indication that it might delay the recall election, set for 7 October, because of unreliable voting machinery in six counties.
In the latest twist to a race in which nothing has turned out as expected, a Los Angeles Times poll challenged the conventional wisdom that Governor Davis was history. Fifty per cent of respondents said they would vote to recall him, with 47 per cent against and 3 per cent undecided. The difference between the "yes" and "no" camps is, for the first time, statistically insignificant.
A recall is a process in which voters can remove a public official from office before his or her term expires. In Mr Davis's case, his opponents gathered the signatures of more than 1.6 million Californians, almost double the 897,158 signatures needed, to trigger the vote.
Although the governor, a Democrat, remains deeply unpopular for his handling of everything from California's electricity crisis to last year's unprecedented $38bn (£24bn) budget deficit, he appears to be benefiting from growing voter disillusionment with his would-be replacements and from an energetic campaign to humanise his robotic, colourless public image. Some of the biggest names in Democratic Party politics have either campaigned for him already or are about to. Bill Clinton is arriving this weekend, to be followed by Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo and many others.
The LA Times poll showed Mr Davis's negative ratings dropping from 72 per cent a month ago to 63 per cent. At the same time, the main Democrat on the ballot to replace him, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, and the main Republican, Arnold Schwarzen-egger, have both seen their negative ratings increase appreciably.
Mr Bustamante is under fire for testing the limits of campaign finance law by taking millions of dollars from Indian gambling interests, and for supporting a radical Latino campus organisation when he was a student. Mr Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, has been struggling on all fronts because he has refused to be drawn on the specifics of his platform, has so far refused to debate with his fellow candidates, and has had to fend off a flurry of unflattering accounts of his colourful sexual history, many of them provided by himself in old magazine interviews.
Mr Bustamante remains the front-runner with 30 per cent, with Mr Schwarzenegger running behind on 25. The conservative Republican Tom McClintock, who has been articulate and clear on his policy positions, was at 18 per cent in the LA Times poll.
Another factor could be added to the equation next week if, as is now looking likely, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeal orders the whole circus to be postponed because of concerns over punchcard voting machines, the same ones that caused the hanging chad farrago of the 2000 presidential election in Florida.
A representative of California's elections office was questioned during oral arguments on Thursday after he admitted that punchcard machines were "obsolete, antiquated and unacceptable" but still said they should be used in six counties - including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, the state capital - where new computerised machines will not be ready before March.
"So we have to accept the unacceptable, is that what you are saying?" Judge Harry Pregerson asked him after hearing evidence that as many as 40,000 voters could be disenfranchised by the machines.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies