SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Scores of Californians took the once-in-a-lifetime shot to run for governor yesterday in the state's recall election as Democrats successfully whittled their field to one major backup candidate in case Gov. Gray Davis is ousted.
Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi dropped out two hours before the filing deadline, leaving Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the only prominent Democrat on the ballot. That raised hopes of keeping the governor's office in party hands if the unpopular governor is voted out Oct. 7.
If voters turn Davis out of office, Bustamante will compete against a field that includes last year's gubernatorial runner-up, Bill Simon, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth - all Republicans - and columnist Arianna Huffington, an independent.
The field of more than 100 candidates also includes former child actor Gary Coleman, comedian Gallagher, porn publisher Larry Flynt and Angelyne, a buxom artist whose likeness appears on billboards around Los Angeles.
Despite the onslaught of wannabes aiming to run the nation's most populous state, Davis remained confident yesterday.
"Many people are trying to become the governor. I am the governor," Davis said to laughter after a bill signing at a health clinic in Santa Monica. "Whether the people of the state want me to stay 60 days or 3 1/2 years - as hopefully they will eventually decide - I am going to do my level best to improve their lives every day I have."
A new Time-CNN poll released yesterday showed voters leaning toward recalling Davis.
Fifty-four percent said they would vote Davis out, while 35 percent were opposed. Of the better-known candidates, 25 percent chose Schwarzenegger and 15 percent chose Bustamante, while others were in single digits. The poll of 508 voters was conducted Friday and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Davis, who has seen his approval ratings plummet in recent months, is the first governor of the Golden State to face a recall.
Voter anger has been building since the state's 2000-2001 energy crisis. Since then, Californians have witnessed the decline of the state's technology sector and a record $38 billion budget deficit, which triggered a tripling of the vehicle tax, forced college fees to rise as much as 30 percent and has threatened state employees with layoffs and pay cuts.
The recall ballot will have two parts, with voters first deciding whether or not to oust Davis and then choosing from a list of candidates to replace him. People voting to keep Davis would still be able to cast a vote for a successor.
If the campaign against him succeeds, Davis would be only the nation's second governor to be recalled. In 1921, North Dakota voters ousted Gov. Lynn Frazier as banks were failing, crop prices were plummeting and Frazier was mired in allegations of promoting radical socialism.
The final casting call for the nation's political blockbuster unfolded yesterday, as a fraction of the nearly 500 people who took out applications to run turned in their necessary papers to get on the burgeoning ballot.
By day's end, more than 100 people had filed to run, according to an Associated Press survey of counties. The official number of candidates who will appear on the ballot won't be released until the secretary of state certifies the paperwork Wednesday.
To get on the ballot, candidates had to either pay a $3,500 filing fee and submit signatures of at least 65 registered voters or skip the fee and submit 10,000 voter signatures.
Schwarzenegger arrived at the Los Angeles County recorder's office with his wife, Maria Shriver, to the shrieks of gawkers. He vowed to be the people's governor as he signed autographs. "I will be there for everybody, young and old, men and women alike. It doesn't make any difference," he said.
Schwarzenegger greeted Huffington, who arrived at the same time to file. She and Shriver hugged. Huffington called for more fuel-efficient vehicles and pointed out that Schwarzenegger had arrived in an SUV while she arrived in a hybrid vehicle. There were a few boos and cries of "Arnold, Arnold."
Ueberroth, who was chief organizer of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, said he could bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican businessman said he would serve only the three years remaining in Davis' term, which is up in January 2007.
"We're not going to run any negative ads. We're not going to trash-talk the other candidates," Ueberroth's consultant, Dan Schnur, said after campaign papers were filed in Orange County.