LOS ANGELES – Republicans contemplating strategy as the drive to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) moves toward the ballot generally agree on two things.
No. 1: The party would be best off uniting behind one candidate.
No. 2: That's unlikely to happen.
"If ever a situation called for a smoke-filled room, this is it," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (search) at Stanford University and former speech writer for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
In such a situation, party leaders would get together to appoint a single person to run, Whalen said. "The problem is the California Republican Party (search) is not really built that way."
Instead, party insiders believe there will be at least two Republicans on the ballot, and quite possibly more. That could lead to Republicans attacking one another, splitting the GOP vote between moderates and conservatives and throwing the advantage to Democrats.
"The focus of this campaign needs to be on the job Gray Davis has done and why he can't be in office for another three years," said Dave Gilliard, director of Rescue California Recall Gray Davis (search), the main recall committee.
"If you have three or four candidates all cutting each other up," Gilliard said, "the focus will be lost."
Recall proponents say they've turned in enough signatures for a special election this fall, although it could be delayed and held in conjunction with the state's March presidential primary. The secretary of state's office has told counties they have until Aug. 22 to verify the signatures.
The ballot would pose two questions. Voters would vote yes or no on recalling Davis, and then would choose from a menu of candidates to replace him. Davis' name would not be on that list.
If the recall succeeded, whichever candidate got the most votes would immediately become governor.
So far, the only declared Republican candidate is U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a conservative who spent $1.5 million of his car alarm fortune to bankroll Rescue California. Issa began running campaign radio ads around the state Wednesday.
Other potential GOP contenders are businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November; state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks; actor Arnold Schwarzenegger; and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who is expected to run only if Schwarzenegger does not.
Schwarzenegger adviser George Gorton said Wednesday he thinks the actor will decide to run and make a formal announcement after an election date is set. Schwarzenegger's entry could keep other contenders out, but the moderate actor likely would be competing against more conservative candidates such as Issa and possibly Simon.
Gilliard said he has urged party leaders to develop a process to endorse one candidate, a scenario Issa also said he favors.
State GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim, meeting with reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C., said he wants potential candidates themselves to help narrow the field but acknowledged he has no authority to force them to talk.
"They should be prepared at some point to sit down and decide what's in the best interests of the state of California and what's in the best interests of the party," he said.
Senior Bush advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House will stay out of the recall.
In plotting strategy, state Republicans said they are assuming there will be Democrats on the ballot.
The state's leading Democrats have said they are united behind Davis and do not intend to run, but strategists from both parties predict that if polls show Davis losing the recall, one or more Democrats will get on the ballot.
"I don't believe for one second that the Democratic state officeholders are going to stay out of this race," Republican strategist Dan Schnur said. "Once the recall is on the ballot, they're going to realize they can't risk their party's future in the hands of a governor with a (low) approval rating."
Republicans said having two GOP contenders would not necessarily be fatal unless Democrats united behind U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who polls show is the strongest possible candidate. Feinstein has said she does not intend to run.