SAN FRANCISCO – With a federal judicial panel likely to reinstate the Oct. 7 date for the California recall election, Gov. Gray Davis (search) and the candidates vying to succeed him are preparing for a final two-week campaign push.
The best known Republican in the race, Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), was preparing to step into the spotlight for his first and -- chances are, only -- debate of the campaign Wednesday. On Sunday, Schwarzenegger outlined several proposals to cut air pollution in California by 50 percent by 2011.
His appearance came a day before an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) was scheduled to hear arguments on whether to uphold a ruling by a smaller panel last week that the election must be postponed until six counties still using punch card ballots can upgrade to more reliable voting machines.
The judges chosen for the new panel are said to be more conservative than the three who made the original ruling. Observers say the new panel will likely reverse the earlier ruling.
"As they say at the racetrack, we're going into the clubhouse turn," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College.
Schwarzenegger promised Sunday to create a network of hydrogen fueling stations throughout the state in order to promote increased use of hydrogen powered vehicles. He also said he would prevent coastal oil drilling and seek to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent within two years.
Following the speech, Schwarzenegger criticized Davis' environmental record.
"Gray Davis has just started talking about the environment the last few days," Schwarzenegger said. But he backtracked when reminded of recent legislation signed by the governor, saying, "I'm not aware of all those bills that he has signed the last year."
Gabriel Sanchez, a spokesman for Davis' campaign, scoffed at Schwarzenegger's claim.
"Gov. Davis has been active in protecting the environment throughout his entire 30-year career and to say otherwise is misleading and flat-out false," Sanchez said.
Schwarzenegger, who has called Wednesday's forum "the Super Bowl of debates," is preparing extensively for it, aides said.
"He meets regularly with his team of policy advisers and experts, and now the focus is on the debate," campaign spokesman Todd Harris said.
Davis enters the week buoyed by new poll numbers showing he is gaining momentum. A statewide poll by the Public Policy Institute of California released Sunday showed just 53 percent of likely voters want to oust Davis, down from 58 percent last month. Forty-two percent said they would vote to keep him in office.
The poll mirrored two other statewide polls released this month which showed that, while a majority of voters wanted to recall Davis, the margin has tightened.
The same poll also showed Schwarzenegger virtually tied with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only Democrat in the race among candidates vying to replace Davis if he is recalled. The poll found 28 percent support for Bustamante and 26 percent for Schwarzenegger, with 14 percent saying they support Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock.
The findings fueled new speculation about whether McClintock will get out of the race in order not to split the Republican vote and hand the election to Bustamante. McClintock has said repeatedly he does not plan to leave the race.
Pitney said the debate will give Schwarzenegger his best chance to win over conservative voters, who are the core of McClintock's support.
"The debate is an opportunity for Schwarzenegger to close the sale with a lot of Republicans and conservatives, or an opportunity for other candidates to stop him cold," Pitney said.
Davis, who will not participate in the debate, planned to campaign this week with Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic presidential candidate. Lieberman will also campaign with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is his California campaign chairman.
"We are going to stay focused on the strategy that gotten us through this entire surreal process," said Davis campaign spokesman Peter Ragone. "The governor is going to talk candidly with voters at town hall meetings, and will be joined by Democratic party leaders to point out that this is a power grab by Republicans and is fundamentally unfair."