SAN FRANCISCO — One is a sumo wrestler. Another is the former commissioner of Major League Baseball. A third is a blue-clad Venice Beach bohemian who suggests that his campaign will be a piece of performance art.
The array of candidates in the great stampede to replace California Gov. Gray Davis in this fall's recall election is as broad and eclectic as the state itself.
To some, this is a unique chance for publicity. To others, the recall is the grandest political joke yet devised. And amid all these are earnest idealists who believe they can be antidotes to California's chronic crises. Amid the career politicians, they are bankers and lawyers, teachers and next-door neighbors.
At worst, these more than 120 candidates who have qualified for the Oct. 7 ballot could bring two months of campaign confusion, culminating in a ballot longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls. At best, though, the recall represents a unique moment in American history, when even the common and unconnected can run for the most powerful post in state politics.
"There are certain benefits to people who would want to run for governor who could never do it because of party politics," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "The downside is: What do parties do? They sift out the silly candidates from the serious candidates."
Indeed, the silly candidates have seemingly turned the California into a Big Top of American politics. Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine, is running, as well as an adult-film star. Billboard model Angelyne is in, as well as child TV star Gary Coleman, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and Donald Novello, creator of Saturday Night Live's Father Guido Sarducci.
Some candidates are no stranger to politics. Businessman Bill Simon, who ran against Governor Davis in the most recent election, has entered the fray. So has Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, who ran for the office in 2002. Audie Bock, former state assemblywoman, will also attempt to leapfrog to the top rung on the ladder of political hierarchy with her candidacy bid.
There are many other noncelebrity candidates from all walks of life, too: A bounty hunter, school teacher, a travel agent, and a 100-year-old woman, and the Venice Beach artist who sports a blue cowboy hat.
While the secretary of state will not announce the official tally until Wednesday, the ease of getting into the race - 65 signatures and $3,500 - has brought California to the brink of political chaos. Some observers suggest that if the recall of Gov. Gray Davis passes on Part 1 of the ballot, the replacement winner on Part 2 might take as little as 15 percent of the vote.
"I can't imagine the challenges for voters just sifting through all the names," says Professor Gerston.
Moreover, the situation might force counties to scrap newer voting systems in favor of more-primitive machines, which can handle more names. "The fallback is to go to a system that our voters are not familiar with," says Steve Weir, a Contra Costa County official who says his electronic system can handle only 45 names.
Certainly, many of the names will not be familiar. For some candidates, that's OK. Leonard Padilla - who has run for mayor of Sacramento twice - is convinced that the root of California's financial crisis is that the state has too many employees and it pays them too much. He simply wants to be heard.
"The opportunity to run for governor of the state of California is seldom afforded to people like myself," says Leonard Padilla, a bounty hunter who lists his party as "declined to state." "I can stand out here at an intersection, and no one is going to listen to me. But if I run for governor, people might start to listen and say, 'Maybe he's got a point.' "
For others, though, the recall might have an impact that goes well beyond message statements and the end of the election in October. This opportunity for an unprecedented political education has sparked a new generation of citizen politicians - even among those who eventually decided against running for governor.
Marie Hurabiell intended to file her signatures and fee until the last moment. Although she had never run for elected office before, she took a leave of absence from her job as an executive at the digital division of Knight-Ridder newspapers to spend all her time on her campaign. And between the red walls of her tiny San Francisco dining room, all the trappings of a political campaign had sprouted in miniature.
On a recent day, the phone rang constantly. Behind her on a whiteboard the categories of "Volunteers," "Fundraising," and "Issues" were cross-referenced by priority.
But Republican operatives took her candidacy so seriously that when they met with her over the weekend, they asked her to drop out, concerned that she would not siphon votes from other Republicans. She agreed, but only because she is now planning on running for a different office - which she will not disclose - with their help.
Make no mistake. For Hurabiell, this is a calling. "When the recall was finally announced, I looked at my husband and said, 'I feel this is what I should be doing.' "
It's an insight into a largely unseen side of the recall. Hurabiell's frustration with California politics - and her belief that an everyday person can do better - is widespread.
"We need a fresh voice," said George Willis, who was planning to run before the recall turned into a "fiasco." "[We need] a common person who understands what's going on around the state, and not some bureaucrat in Sacramento."
Mr. Willis says he was energized by the process of gathering signatures and, like Hurabiell, may try run for a local office such as the city council.
"This was the impetus," says the Burbank resident. "I thought about running before, but now, I feel like, Why not? I could do it."