Do too many candidates spoil a ballot?

As California descends into campaign mayhem, it's part comedy, part agony, part rush to a hazy future.

Let's call it the speed-chess version of American politics. With the special elections set for Oct. 7, California politics, already wacky, are taking the strategic shuffle to a new level.

As California hops from check to checkmate to decide the fate of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis - and, should he be ousted, his replacement - there's hardly a stalemate for candidates to catch their breath. While Europeans are used to such compact campaigns, with vote-of-confidence elections that fall within weeks of notification, Americans have had yawns lasting that long.

Now, candidates must rush to decide whether they're in or out by Aug. 9. The result could be an election of unprecedented chaos. But it might be just the right time frame for otherwise engaged Californians, more absorbed with beamers, bottom lines, and tan lines than the irksome ups and downs and ins and outs of interminable campaigns.

For the moment, both parties are digging in for a short, intense contest - and candidates are waiting to ricochet off one another's announcements. Democrats are largely sticking by Davis and refusing to run, at least for now - though recent statements by Senator Dianne Feinstein and former Congressman Leon Panetta left a tiny but notable bit of room for a change of heart.

Former Green Party Assemblywoman Audie Block, now a Democrat, has said she'll run - becoming the first Democrat to break with the party's stance. And San Francisco activists are urging Arianna Huffington to run as a progressive independent.

Republicans, meanwhile, are watching the political kaleidoscope and biding their time. Key among them is Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous body-builder/actor. If he adds his name to the ballot, many others will not, including Richard Riordan, a millionaire-businessman and former Los Angeles mayor.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is my first choice, would do a tremendous job," Mr. Riordan said on talk radio last week. "If for some reason, Arnold decides not to do it," he continued, "I will take a hard look."

Mr. Schwarzenegger, last cornered at a movie première in Mexico, says he's still weighing his options. Politicos say he is expected - and would be wise - to wait until the last minute to announce his candidacy.

If either Riordan or Schwarzenegger are in, then former Gov. George Deukmejian is out. The two-term governor has the most concrete experience of any potential candidate - but says he's interested only if there are no other Republicans in the race.

Other potential Republican candidates include Ms. Huffington's ex-husband, former Republican congressman and US Senate candidate Michael Huffington, and former vice-presidential hopeful Jack Kemp. William Simon, who barely lost to Davis last fall, is also considering a bid, as is State Assemblyman Keith Richman and state Sen. Tom McClintock.

The only person to formally declare candidacy is Rep. Darrell Issa, the car-alarm millionaire who bankrolled the signature campaign to oust Davis. But with the not-so-stringent requirement of 65 signatures and $3,500 to land one's name on the ballot, there's high anticipation that many others will join the race - if only for fun.

Indeed, the frivolity with which many have seized on candidacy angers some voters and worries politicos, prompting fears that the media bubble surrounding a legend like Schwarzenegger - known for roles in movies from "Terminator" to "Conan the Barbarian" - may pop the day he takes office and confronts tricky issues.

"There is no conventional wisdom," says political scientist Sherry Jeffe, who's covered state politics for 30 years. "This is entirely new to everyone. Right now there is a circus atmosphere that belies how serious it really is."

Amid severe budget cuts, the election's cost - reportedly $30 to $40 million - has become a point of contention. So have nine counties' plans to roll out new voting systems, spurred by Florida's election fiasco in 2000. And roughly half the state's 88 counties will have another election Nov. 4. - angering officials as they slash budgets statewide.

"It's mind boggling ... that with so little money we're going to spend $35 to $40 million on a recall election," says Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, a transplant from New York.

Insisting that the recall is critical - and angry at those making light of it - several groups have converged with the funds to make it happen. GOP organizers say they'll raise $20 million. Democratic organizers are also raising money to attack potential candidates and convince big Democratic names not to run.

Still, as Californians luxuriate in the last weeks of summer, the big question looms: Do voters really care? The mood of the moment, like the campaign itself, is comical and serious at the same time. Pens are poised above ballots, tongues are lodged in cheeks. It's rare, after all, that a state's debt rating falls to near-junk status and an election summons imagery of blockbuster movies, superhuman robots, and silver-coiffed statesmen in governors' chairs, as happened Saturday at a Sacramento rally, where a brass band played and a Schwarzenegger fan brandished a poster: "Terminate Davis," it read.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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