OAKLAND, CALIF. — When California Gov. Gray Davis rumbled into office six years ago, with one hand on a record-breaking fundraising machine and one eye on the presidency, he most likely did not have visions of Lynn Frazier in his head. Yet this autumn, the well-coifed Democrat could become the first governor recalled by a popular vote since that obscure North Dakota executive in 1921.
In California's 153-year history, no governor has faced a recall. But as citizens line up around the block to put one on the ballot, what was once seen as fantasy has now taken a rock-hard reality.
Blame it on a $38 billion deficit, the energy crisis, or Governor Davis's lack of charisma. Regardless, the momentum has changed the political calculus in America's most influential state capital.
Lawmakers are now wondering if their new governor this fall might be Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr., or an obscure San Diego congressman who made his fortune selling car alarms.
Even for a state that seems to have seen everything in the political playbook - from property-tax revolts to term limits - the peculiar rules of the California recall make the coming months an almost complete mystery. And the uncertainty has struck a chord of caution in Sacramento, just when it seems daring is needed to lead the state out of record deficits.
"Everyone is focusing on this now instead of what they should be focusing on," says Barbara O'Connor, a political scientist at California State University in Sacramento. "I don't really have any way to describe [the situation], so that's why people are calling it the Wild West."
If the recall qualifies - and organizers claim they have collected 400,000 of the roughly 900,000 signatures needed - the vote could have a gunslinging feel. Not only will voters will be asked whether to recall Davis, but a second question will ask them to vote for a new governor should Davis be ousted.
To get onto that ballot there are no primaries, and candidates only have to pay $3,500 and collect 10,000 signatures. Moreover, if the recall passes, whoever gets the most votes - even if that's not a majority - wins. It's a potential back door to the governor's office: less than 30 percent of the electorate could show up, and the winning candidate could garner as little as 30 percent of the vote. "It will be a free-for-all," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Already, Democrats have taken steps to ensure that doesn't happen. All the major Democrats - including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), who faced a failed recall while mayor of San Francisco - have said they will not put their names on the ballot.
By closing out the Democratic field, they hope to make history repeat itself. "What they want is a stark choice between Davis and a bunch of conservative Republicans," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "That's what they learned from the last election - that Gray Davis wins not because people love Gray Davis, but because the other choice is out of step with [heavily Democratic] California."
It is a calculated risk, though. If organizers collect 900,000 signatures by mid-July, a special vote will be held this fall, when anti-Davis voters might predominate. If organizers need until the final deadline on Sept. 2, the vote would be held next March, when the Democratic presidential primary would likely bring out more voters who are pro-Democrat - if not pro-Davis.
Indeed, Davis has few supporters - especially since expanding budgets have sent the state's deficits spiraling out of control. During his five-year tenure, California's budget has swelled from roughly $70 billion to more than $100 billion, while Davis' approval rating has plummeted from above 50 percent in 2001 to 28 percent earlier this month.
Now, just over half of likely voters say they'd support a recall, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. "People are fed up with politics as usual," says Republican strategist Sal Russo. "They're in a throw-the-rascals-out mode."
Whether Rep. Darrell Issa, the wealthy San Diego Republican who's bankrolled the recall campaign, can topple a teetering Davis is questionable. Analysts say California native Condoleezza Rice would be an intriguing candidate. Mr. Schwarzenegger - who has said he'll consider a run after the release of "Terminator 3" - could present problems. "The complete wild card is Arnold," says Mr. Cain. "No one can tell you what will happen with him. Maybe he sweeps the whole thing like [former Minnesota governor] Jesse Ventura, or maybe he bombs out."