LOS ANGELES -- The movement to replace just re-elected Democrat Gray Davis as governor of California is beginning to look like a runaway train with nobody at the controls. The state's voters may go to the polls this fall to decide whether Gov. Davis shall be removed, would then probably vote him out and, on the same ballot, select his successor. Nobody can predict that successor, or even whether the winner would be a Republican or Democrat.
While bipartisan establishment politicians remain in denial, realists now are taking the recall movement seriously. Dave Galliard, a Sacramento-based political consultant seeking signatures for recall petitions, says 520,000 voters have signed. He is aiming for 1.2 million, providing insurance that the required 897,000 valid names are collected. If this is done by July 18, an election must be held in September or October. Gov. Davis, at 21 percent approval in a recent private labor union poll, cannot be expected to survive.
That is not what President Bush's strategists want to hear. They fear the recall could elect a popular Democrat to replace the weakened Davis, making it more difficult for Bush to carry the state that would ensure his re-election. They cannot stop the train at this point, however. The recall movement has characteristics of anti-establishment resentment that in 1978 passed the famous Proposition 13 tax cut.
Seven months after winning a second term against neophyte Republican candidate Bill Simon, Davis has lost support from everybody except organized labor. His campaign team, headed by Garry South, is reassembling to fight the recall. But this is the same team that won in 2002 by savaging Simon without defending Davis, who never prepared voters for his tax increases to solve the state budget crisis.
Similarly, Republican leaders have changed their attitude since a recent visit to the state capital in Sacramento by the conservative congressman who triggered the recall movement: Rep. Darrell Issa, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Issa called Republican Leader Jim Brulte off the Senate floor to detail his plans to fund the movement -- $700,000 contributed by him so far with more coming. Since then, Brulte's hostility to a recall has changed to neutrality.
As the recall originator, Issa must be considered a leader in the winner-take-all non-party election on the same ballot as the Davis removal question. But he is not the only Republican hopeful. State Sen. Tom McClintock, an anti-tax advocate, is running to Issa's right. Simon, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State Bill Jones have been privately testing support.
All may be dwarfed by a liberal Republican: former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. After losing to conservative Simon in the 2002 GOP primary, Riordan has asked for White House help in clearing out the rest of the Republicans. Since that is patently impossible, Riordan may run as an independent.
Gerald Parsky, the investment banker who is Bush's main political agent here, has not joined the recall movement. "I understand why people in California would be upset by the financial crisis," Parsky told me, "but my first priority is the re-election of the president and getting the financing necessary to accomplish this."
Other Republican critics of the recall see a nightmare scenario where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular politician, enters the race and easily wins -- replacing a 21 percent favorable Democrat with a 62 percent favorable. But Feinstein is on record against Davis's recall and can hardly urge voters to vote for her on the same ballot.
The same conflict afflicts other Democrats who are more likely to run than Feinstein: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, State Treasurer Phil Angelides and maybe San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. It least affects State Senate President John Burton, who detests Davis and is ready to run. (One of Burton's supporters, a well-known Democrat, told me he is tempted to sign a Davis recall petition.)
Fear by leading Republicans that any one of these Democrats probably will replace Davis reflects the GOP establishment's defeatism, resulting from the state party's 2002 wipeout. The prospects for a recall, however, have lifted spirits of California grassroots Republicans, who hope a low-turnout autumn election will defeat the Democrats. Whether or not that appraisal is realistic, it is becoming too late to stop the runaway recall.