With its cast of characters officially set, the California recall election is now becoming a battle of competing plotlines. The survival of Gov. Gray Davis - and who, if anyone, winds up replacing him - is likely to depend on which campaign is best able to frame the election over the course of the next two months. At issue: Whether voters will focus primarily on personalities or the process.
For challenger Arnold Schwarzenegger - the leading contender, according to recent polls - the goal will be to keep the public focused on Governor Davis's shortcomings, as well as his own leadership qualities, and to set the election up essentially as a popularity contest.
Davis, on the other hand, will try to get Californians to focus on the recall itself, casting it as an expensive and embarrassing sideshow, with dangerous precedents for the state and for democracy. In many ways, Davis's strategy mirrors Bill Clinton's efforts to fight impeachment: Aides say the governor will probably spend the next two months showing that he is working hard on behalf of the people of California, spending his time reading and signing bills, for example, rather than overtly campaigning.
"The best thing [Davis] can do for the state - and for himself - is, in this time of uncertainty and instability, to be a beacon of stability," says David Doak, Davis's media strategist. "Our main opponent is not Arnold Schwarzenegger or anybody else. Our goal is to get a no vote on the initiative."
Yet Davis may be facing a tougher challenge than Mr. Clinton did - both because of the depth of his unpopularity and because he is simultaneously facing a roster of challengers.
According to a CNN poll, 54 percent of California voters now support recalling Davis, while 35 percent would keep him in office. Among the replacement candidates, Schwarzenegger leads with 25 percent, while Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is next with 15 percent support.
To survive, Davis must convince at least 5 percent of those who favor recalling him to change their minds, while ensuring that none of the undecided or opposed voters turn against him.
One way Democratic leaders hope to turn some voters against the recall is by casting it as a Republican coup orchestrated by the White House. With President Bush's popularity sinking in the state, strategists note that Mr. Bush recently weighed in on the election from his ranch in Crawford, saying he believed Schwarzenegger would make a good governor.
"We now have the DNA evidence to point out to Democrats in California that this is about the Republicans in the White House trying to take over California," says Bob Mulholland, campaign director for the California Democratic Party. He says the party will spend coming weeks reaching out to Democrats "who hate Bush," and trying to use that emotion to turn them against the recall.
The Davis team is also trying to portray the recall as risky, since, with at least 150 candidates on the ballot, voters who opt to jettison the governor can't count on getting their preferred replacement. "It's not a normal election: It's not Gray Davis vs. Bill Simon or Al Gore vs. George Bush, where you know who the other person is," says Mr. Doak. "If you vote no on Gray Davis, it could be Angelyne or Larry Flynt [who succeeds him]."
Still, it may not be enough for Davis to cast doubt on the recall process. Analysts agree he will also have to discredit Schwarzenegger in some ways - albeit carefully, to avoid compounding impressions of himself as a negative campaigner.
Certainly, Schwarzenegger, a political novice, will likely come under increased scrutiny over the next two months, and if voters grow less enthusiastic about him, it may dilute enthusiasm for the recall in general. But because the campaign is just two months, the actor may not have to offer many in-depth positions, allowing him to make the contest a battle over personality and leadership.
"He is going to have to take stands on issues, but he is not going to get any more specific than he has to," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "The Terminator should not suddenly become Al Gore, and he shouldn't try."
A major factor for Schwarzenegger will be whether he is able to unite most Republicans behind him and stand out as the party's consensus candidate. With a number of other GOP candidates joining him on the ballot - some considerably more conservative - the GOP could face significant party infighting during the campaign, which could reinforce a general impression of the recall as a circus-like affair.
On the other hand, Schwarzenegger's success also depends on Davis's failure, since he needs the recall to go through to be elected as a replacement. If Davis's actions in coming weeks improve his personal standing - or, by contrast, if he decides to resign and let Mr. Bustamante take over as governor - that could derail Schwarzenegger's bid. "Polls show people are mad at Davis," says Tony Quinn, a longtime GOP analyst. "Even Arnold is running on the emotion to get rid of Davis. Remove that, and the recall might not be there."