In the chaotic California recall battle, a fundamental factor is emerging as more significant than either the record of Gov. Gray Davis, or the colorful array of candidates vying to replace him: partisan unity.
With a new survey showing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante running slightly ahead of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger among possible replacement candidates to Mr. Davis - despite a vast deficit in name recognition and star power - the recall election may be turning into a test of which party can present a more cohesive front. The challenges for both sides: consolidating support behind a single contender, and getting more voters to the polls.
Certainly, both parties are struggling with internal divisions. Some Democratic leaders remain opposed to Mr. Bustamante's candidacy, seeing any Democrat on the ballot as undermining the effort to fight the recall, while others regard him as their party's best hope.
But increasingly, it's Republicans who are facing the deeper rifts. With at least four credible candidates on the ballot - including businessman Bill Simon, state Sen. Tom McClintock, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth - the party may wind up diluting its vote enough to prevent its front-runner, Mr. Schwarzenegger, from winning.
It's a divide that may prove extremely difficult to bridge. Analysts point out that the Democratic split is essentially over tactics, with the two sides disagreeing over how best to keep control of the governorship. The GOP clash, by contrast, goes to the heart of party philosophy, with the conservative and moderates wings at odds over which sort of candidate and platform to support.
"The split on the Republican side is ideological. The split on the Democratic side is not. And ideological divisions are harder to heal than nonideological ones," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
Democrats have already managed to minimize some of their party's divisions. With Bustamante the only prominent Democrat on the ballot (Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi originally announced his intention to run, but was quickly induced to change his mind), the party is coalescing around a "vote no on recall, yes on Bustamante" strategy.
Of course, the two sides may continue clashing over where the bulk of the party's resources should be spent - fighting the recall or promoting Bustamante. Many Davis supporters worry Bustamante's campaign will inevitably dilute the party's anti-recall message.
"Cruz Bustamante's decision to get on the ballot undercut a powerful argument from a mass-media standpoint - which was that this is purely a Republican coup," says Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, and a former communications director for Davis.
But the Democratic disagreements seem relatively minor compared with the division dogging the GOP - a split analysts say has cost the party in recent statewide elections, and may do so again.
"The state really has two Republican parties," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. The moderate wing holds more voters, but much of the organization is on the conservative side, he says, resulting in a series of right-wing nominees who have gone on to lose in the general election - as in 2002, when Mr. Simon beat former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the primary, only to lose to Davis.
The recall election has no primary, but with several GOP candidates on the ballot, it may wind up functioning as a primary and general election all in one, with conservatives taking just enough votes away from Schwarzenegger to keep him from winning overall.
Indeed, the latest polls underscore the difficulties the actor faces in trying to pull together a winning coalition. The most recent Field Poll finds Schwarzenegger trailing Bustamante, 25 to 22 percent. But an additional 22 percent of voters are split among the other Republican candidates: Mr. McClintock received 9 percent, Simon 8 percent, and Mr. Ueberroth 5 percent. If all those voters simply switched to support Schwarzenegger instead - and none of his current supporters abandoned him - he would win handily.
But by appealing more overtly to conservatives, the actor would almost certainly limit his ability to reach out to Democratic and independent voters - a group he also needs, and seems intent on courting, with recent moves to add prominent Democrats such as investor Warren Buffett and actor Rob Lowe to his campaign team.
"The more visible Democrats he can put onto his advisory committee, the more appealing he will be to independent and Democratic voters. But the more he puts those guys on, the more the conservatives will likely stick with their candidates," says Professor Cain.
To some extent, the Democrats could face a similar problem on the left, with columnist Arianna Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo potentially siphoning liberal support from Bustamante. But the effect is less significant, because those candidates are drawing a smaller percentage of the vote: In the Field poll, Ms. Huffington received 4 percent while Mr. Camejo was at 2 percent.
The differences between the center- and left-leaning candidates may also be less severe, making it easier for them to coalesce behind a single contender.
By contrast, Schwarzenegger's stances on a number hot-button social issues - from abortion to gay rights to gun control - are sharply at odds with right-wing orthodoxy. "It's hard to coalesce around a candidate when a certain part of the party has such strong views," says Mr. DiCamillo.
Some Republican leaders have lately hinted that the party's best hope might be to simply pressure other candidates to drop out - essentially making Schwarzenegger the only choice for Republican voters.
But in a party that's spent years in disarray, most observers don't see that as likely, either.
"There's no Republican in California strong enough to crack any type of whip," says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist. "If there's going to be a consolidation [of candidates], that's going to be a decision made purely by Bill Simon, Tom McClintock, and their people."