On a 108-degree F. morning in the dust and desert sun of California's Imperial Valley, exuberance can seem in short supply - especially in lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
But trucker Bill Anderson makes little effort to suppress his enthusiasm. In fact, he's so excited that he can't help interrupting a nearby conversation to offer his opinion. Not on the heat or the price of alfalfa. But on politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the "people's governor," growls the grizzled Mr. Anderson, displaying the only jolt of energy in the room. "He'll take care of all those crooked politicians in Sacramento."
Like many Californians, Anderson has been energized by a recall that has swung between high political drama and vaudeville comedy. Some are intrigued, others are disgusted - few are indifferent.
From El Centro to the northern coastline, citizens tick off deficit estimates like seasoned CPAs and run down the list of major candidates as confidently as political reporters. Whatever their opinions of this unusual political process, frustrated Californians are tuning in and sounding off.
"Voters are serious about the process," says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll in San Francisco. "There is a renewed interest [in politics], and it's leading to more discussion about California and the future of its leadership."
Specifically, he points to surveys that indicate that an unusually high number of respondents intend to vote in the Oct. 7 election. A recent NBC News poll put the figure at 78 percent.
Here amid the scrub and sweat of Imperial County, ambivalent voters are about as common as a cool breeze. And support for Mr. Schwarzenegger's candidacy is as hot as the border sun.
"Schwarzenegger entering greatly increased the interest level," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.
But this is supposed to be Davis Country. It was one of only 18 counties that voted for governor Davis in the 2002 election - as opposed to the 40 that voted against him. Only eight counties collected fewer signatures per registered voter during the push to get the recall on the ballot. Here, only 28 percent of registered voters are Republicans.
Yet the buzz is decidedly about the Austrian-born bodybuilder. "He's more outgoing and up front, and he speaks his mind," says Joyce Gentry, a Demo crat who is waiting in line at the DMV with her parents.
Davis's uphill battle
Across town at the local diner, the sentiments are - if anything - even stronger. "He'll be a smart enough guy to have people around him who know things," says self-described news junkie Dean Tucker as he leans over the lunch counter. A few tables away, Rhonda Derrick says the prospect of Schwarzenegger in Sacramento is scrumptious: "He can't do any worse" than Davis.
It's a common quip, and it hints at the depth of Davis's challenge in the months before the Oct. 7 election. To many, the question of whether Davis is solely responsible for a $38 billion deficit, a tripled car tax, or an energy crisis misses the point.
"People are making a joke out of this, but I don't think it's a joke," says a blond-haired woman who squints though her sunglasses and speaks with matter-of-fact certainty. "[Davis] is supposedly the leader, so everything would fall on him. I believe it's his fault."
Across the state, there are many that agree with her. Polls suggest a majority of Californians would currently vote to oust Davis. But this woman sits on a bench in the Bay Area city of Concord. And on the skirts of the bald hump of Mount Diablo, her comments are as conspicuous as the mountain itself. In fact, she withholds her name because, she says, half-kidding, "I don't want anyone egging my house."
In Democratic strongholds such as the Bay Area, the recall has stirred up emotions, too. But almost all run against the recall. Most cite the expense. Others call it a Republican power-grab and a farce.
"The whole thing is a travesty," said Christina Lee, a Spanish literature professor at San Jose State University. "I don't personally like Gray Davis, but ... there's no alternative that makes sense. I'd rather stay in the current situation rather than dive into the black hole of uncertainty."
Down the coast in Santa Monica, the same is true. "I'm afraid it's going to start a trend in which the minute people have any criticism, or the minute a party's out of power, they call for a recall," adds Karen Weinstein of West Los Angeles, who is out for a stroll on the promenade with three teenage grandnieces.
Yet even here, there are traces of the broader recall energy. Dressed in an untucked flannel shirt and wraparound shades, Josh offers his first name only, and a political invective that would do Karl Marx proud. Though he trends toward the conservative, he speaks as if the recall will bring about a revolution. "[This] should happen in other states too," he says. "It's about time that the people got a voice. If political leaders make a mistake, something is being done about it."
His comment hints at what some feel is the true engine of the recall: frustration to the point of desperation. The number $38 billion - the state deficit earlier this year - is seared like a brand into the California consciousness, and there is the sense that voters are now cracking the whip.
"This is more than an attempt to oust a governor," says DiCamillo. "It is an attempt to shake things up."
• Chris Richard in Santa Monica and Leila Wombacher Knox in Berkeley contributed to this report.