The mess that was the California recall is slowly taking on some semblance of normalcy. Not that an election with more than 130 candidates and six weeks of frantic campaigning is likely to win the Martha Stewart seal of orderly governance. But Republican Bill Simon's decision Saturday to drop out throws an increasingly tidy light on the race. In short, it's looking like Arnie versus Cruz.
As the only major Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has always been the party's top hedge should Gov. Gray Davis be recalled. Yet this weekend, his course has brightened as key lawmakers and unions backed his bid.
Now, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger has received a similar boost. Though Mr. Simon declined to give any candidate his support, experts expect some of his votes will go to Mr. Schwarzenegger. Moreover, the move suggests that pressure is increasing on other conservatives - such as former Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth and state Sen. Tom McClintock - to drop out as well.
"In a close election, any development that shifts even a couple of percentage points could end up being very important," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.
By all expectations, this is shaping up to be a tight race. Although polls have had difficulty coming to grips with the complexities of the race - with some varying widely - most have shown the emergence of Bustamante and Schwarzenegger as front-runners, each within a few percentage points of the other. A new LA Times poll, however, concludes that Bustamante has a 13 percent lead over the GOP rival.
Even so, Bustamante has the most curious challenge. Under pressure not to undercut Governor Davis, his campaign is based on asking voters to vote against the recall on Question 1, but to vote for him as a Democratic replacement on Question 2, just in case the recall passes with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Though complicated, the tactic has begun to win him support. On Friday, California's Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives gave their support to his "no/yes" campaign, as did the California Teachers Association - one of the state's most powerful unions.
Schwarzenegger's weekend endorsement was somewhat subtler, but just as influential. A bastion of conservative California endorsed the moderate Schwarzenegger - and implored other Republicans to drop out.
Indeed, some experts believe that the decision by the Lincoln Club of Orange County was the blow that sent Simon out of the race, signaling the critical mass of support that is coalescing behind the actor. Persuading other conservatives to leave the race, however, might prove more difficult. Simon had embraced his campaign only tentatively. Mr. McClintock, by contrast, has cast himself as a crusader for California's right, less likely to yield to a movie-star moderate who supports abortion rights and gay rights.
"As far as he's concerned, there's probably not much difference between Schwarzenegger and Bustamante," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.
With whatever influence they wield, though, conservative leaders might have more success with Ueberroth, a lifelong Republican who is running as an independent. His campaign has so far taken on a less-combative tone than McClintock's, and it has appealed to a far more moderate breed of California voter. "If anyone might fall, it's Ueberroth," says Dr. Gerston. "His supporters would be much more closely aligned for Schwarzenegger."
Although it is too late to actually take Simon's name off the ballot, his departure from the campaign already has simplified the election. Sorting through multipage ballots and condensing months of campaigning into six weeks might still give the election a chaotic feel, but the thinning of the field is gradually giving voters a better grasp of the race.
It will be "easier to focus on people in the top tier," adds Gerston. "And these people can be held accountable more quickly because there is less noise."