LOS ANGELES – A Republican-led campaign to recall California's Democratic governor, once dismissed as improbable, now appears poised to qualify for the ballot -- and to shake up California (search) politics like never before.
The outcome is anyone's guess, and the situation has politicians from both parties scrambling. It promises to be "a wild ride," promises one political consultant.
Gov. Gray Davis (search) was elected in a landslide in 1998 but his approval rating tumbled to 28 percent amid voter wrath over the state's energy and budget crises.
Now he could find himself forced from office by a campaign that has been fired up a little-known conservative congressman who has poured $800,000 into the effort so far.
Potential Republican replacements range from that congressman, Rep. Darrell Issa (search), to Bill Simon, the financier Davis narrowly beat in November, to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose advisers say he will decide whether to run after the July 2 release of Terminator 3.
Davis could even be replaced by a fellow Democrat, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has not ruled out a run.
Many Republicans fear the recall could backfire and leave them worse off in a state where Democrats already control every statewide office and both houses of the Legislature.
"This entire process is unprecedented," state GOP communications consultant Rob Stutzman said Sunday.
When Republican activists started talking recall four months ago, few would have predicted it would get so far. Recall campaigns have been attempted 31 times against California governors but none has made it to the ballot.
But everything changed in May, when Issa began shoveling money into the campaign. The ambitious car alarm magnate from the San Diego area, who has served in Congress since 2000, has set up a gubernatorial campaign committee. He started campaigning around the state Saturday.
"Darrell Issa supplied the fuel necessary. Now the rest is just mechanical," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant. "It's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when. And it's going to be a wild ride."
Recall supporters have until Sept. 2 to collect nearly 900,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. They hope to complete the process next month to force a special election this fall instead of next March, when Democrats will turn out for the state's presidential primary.
With Issa's money funding an army of paid signature gatherers, recall organizers claim they've already collected more than 700,000 signatures.
After playing down the recall effort for months, Davis allies recently formed a committee to fight it, raised nearly $800,000 and hired signature gatherers of their own.
Davis himself has begun speaking out against the campaign.
"It will move us backwards and cost the taxpayers $30 million," he told The Associated Press on Friday, referring to the projected cost of a special election. "It's just a bunch of affluent losers who are trying to spend money to throw this state into reverse."
Issa denies that he is funding the recall just to forward his own political ambitions.
"Many people say here's this rich guy trying to buy himself a governorship, right? Wrong," Issa told a gathering of moderate Republicans on Saturday. "People stand 30-deep to sign this petition ... I'm supporting the recall because Gray Davis needs to go."
Anyone could get on a recall ballot by paying a $3,500 filing fee or collecting 10,000 signatures. That means there could be numerous candidates and the victor could win with a relatively small number of votes.
The format has set off furious jockeying in Democratic circles over whether to close ranks around Davis or attempt to unite behind a strong Democrat to replace him if he is recalled. Feinstein's name is the most often mentioned.
On the Republican side, many party leaders fear a Democrat could win or that the recall could distract from efforts to re-elect President Bush.
Regardless of the outcome, the victor would get an unenviable prize: the job of handling the state's $38.2 billion budget deficit.
"I'm concerned it could be successful, and some poor Republican governor walks into an empty office in Sacramento and says 'What do we do now?'" said former GOP Assemblyman Brooks Firestone.