BERKELEY, Calif. – What began as yet another political novelty from the nation's most populous state has morphed into a spectacle remarkable even by California standards.
With everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) to porn prince Larry Flynt (search) jumping into the race to recall beleaguered Gov. Gray Davis, the reality TV show that has commandeered California politics has turned permanently, seriously weird.
"Sadly," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search) said Wednesday as she ruled out running, California is "going to be engaged in an election that is becoming more and more like a carnival every day."
And that was before Schwarzenegger shocked even his own closest political advisers by announcing on "The Tonight Show" that he was getting in the race.
It's hard to look at California's election slate without giggling -- or panicking. Under the recall law, drafted during a wave of populism in 1911, it takes only $3,500 and signatures from 65 voters to run. Court challenges have been filed to the election, set for Oct. 7, but on Thursday the California Supreme Court declined to intervene.
Potential candidates so far include a lady selling thong underwear and a motorcyclist who hopes to legalize pet ferrets. And the 99 Cents Only stores in Los Angeles are running a promotion promising to pay the filing fee and gather signatures for any 99-year-old who'd love to be gov.
Kind of makes wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura (search) -- who did, after all, serve as a small-city mayor before becoming governor of Minnesota -- look like a political veteran.
"It's kind of like a freak show," said Timothy Esau, a fruit inspector in Fresno who considers the spectacle of Schwarzenegger, Flynt and hundreds of political wanna-bes taking out filing papers "a bit embarrassing."
"It conveys an image that we don't give a damn about our own state," he said. Like many Democrats, Esau said he's unhappy with Davis, but "just letting him finish out his term and electing a better governor is the answer, not a recall."
There's serious anger underlying the recall's festival atmosphere. This is an electorate that in recent years has endured an energy crisis and a battering of its high-tech economy and now faces the prospect of higher taxes and fees.
"California's law has turned something important into a circus," said Brian Rosman, a tourist from Newton, Mass., visiting San Francisco on Thursday. "The problems are tax revenues, the huge corporate manipulation of the energy crisis a few years ago, the decline in the high-tech world. Those problems don't get solved by getting a new governor."
The people actually running state government have struggled, too. The state went a month without a budget as lawmakers squabbled before passing a compromise bill in July that includes billions in IOUs.
Still, it's likely one-liners will trump the bottom line, at least for now.
It was a gift to headline writers and late-night comedians around the world when the the star of a movie called "Total Recall" turned into "The Running Man." And while most politicians must content themselves with Sunday morning talk shows, all Schwarzenegger had to do was go across town to chat with fellow celebrity and pal Jay Leno.
"It's the most difficult decision I've ever made in my entire life," he told the "Tonight" host, "except for the one in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax."
Actors have turned politician before, but some students of the craft wonder whether Ah-nuld will have the off-screen charisma of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
"In 'Kindergarten Cop,' he played a cop who takes over a classroom full of 5- and 6-year-olds -- all of whom are too silly and immature to understand they should be afraid of him," wrote San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle in Thursday's paper. "I imagine the press conferences in Sacramento might look something like that."
Hustler publisher Flynt, paralyzed by a bullet from a white supremacist, also a declared candidate, urged Californians to "vote for the smut-peddler with a heart."
"I may be paralyzed from the waist down," said Flynt, "but unlike Gray Davis, I'm not paralyzed from the neck up."
For a while, the Democratic posse looked pretty tight. But the solidarity buckled in the face of a potential Schwarzenegger juggernaut shortly after Feinstein -- who survived her own grueling recall election as mayor of San Francisco -- said she wouldn't join the race. Urged on by other Democrats, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- the state's leading Hispanic politician -- announced his run.
"The Terminator" had the opposite effect on a fellow Republican: U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the car alarm magnate who spent $1.7 million of his own fortune to make the recall happen, bowed out Thursday, crying at what was supposed to be the official launch of his campaign.
Tourists waiting for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to open on Thursday called the recall a circus, an aberration, "a sad thing."
"Coming from the East Coast, we're looking at California saying 'What's going on?'" said Dina Haskal of Somerset, N.J. "We are scratching our heads."