LOS ANGELES – If California voters decide to recall Gov. Gray Davis (search), most expect that they would also get the opportunity to decide who will replace him, but that may not be the case.
According to the state Constitution, once the recall qualifies, the lieutenant governor calls for a replacement election, and "if appropriate," a vote to elect a successor. Some say that gives Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante wiggle room to decide that if Davis is ousted, a replacement vote is not appropriate and he could keep the job for himself.
"Why should it be any different if the governor is recalled than if the governor were to become president or were to become ill or for some other reason couldn't serve?" said political consultant Susan Estrich.
Recall organizers say such a move would be a serious abuse of power, and clearly violates the will of more than 1.6 million Californians who have signed the recall petition (search).
"If he were to do it, it would send out a message that the people don't matter, that the only thing that matters is the politicians in Sacramento and that's exactly the opposite of what this recall is all about," said David Gilliard, director of Rescue California (search).
Both sides agree it would be a bold move on Bustamante's part. But even if the lieutenant governor doesn't act, other Democrats could still turn the issue into a protracted courtroom battle, arguing that if Davis is recalled, by law, Bustamante should be governor.
Even Democratic analysts call it a risky move.
"Gray Davis' argument against the recall right now is that it's all a Republican plot to take over the state. Well, if the Democratic lieutenant governor announces that he's the successor, if the recall succeeds, then it can't be a Republican plot to take over the state," Estrich said.
Despite a flurry of lawsuits by Davis and his supporters saying the recall effort has been conducted illegally, the effort is moving forward.
The secretary of state's office announced Monday evening that about 40 percent of the more than 900,000 signatures already received by the counties have been verified as belonging to registered voters.
Recall backers say they have turned in more than 1.6 million signatures and expect counties to report more than the needed 897,158 valid signatures to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley by Wednesday.
On that timetable, Bustamante would be forced to order a recall election no later than mid-October.
Fox News' Trace Gallagher contributed to this report.