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Colorful Davis challengers are not just shades of gray

Issue: "Capitol stampede in Texas," Aug. 9, 2003

First came the drama: the seemingly impossible task of collecting enough signatures to force a recall vote against California Gov. Gray Davis. Now comes the comedy, as wacky candidates-even by California standards-rush to file their paperwork by the Aug. 9 deadline. Who says politics is boring?

Let's be clear about one thing: No one believes Angelyne could actually win the California governor's race on Oct. 7. But, like everyone else with at least .001 percent name recognition in the state, she's considering a run. After all, it takes just 65 signatures and $3,500 to get on the ballot-a small price to pay for the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

Angelyne's fame, such as it is, has already lasted considerably longer. The first-name-only publicity machine is famous mainly for her racy billboards around Hollywood. She has a website and a fan club and calls herself a star because her signs have been seen in a half-dozen movies. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Hollywood and is now toying with the idea of storming Sacramento.

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To get there, she'll have to beat a high-school student, a rest-stop supervisor, a computer engineer, and a pregnant mom. Then there are the more "serious" possible candidates, including a hot-tempered talk-show host and a certain movie star with an Austrian accent.

Why all the interest? A lot of it has to do with California's uniquely celebrity-driven culture. Starlets like Angelyne and unknowns like Georgy Russell can garner national attention with their quixotic political quests. Ms. Russell, who appears on her website wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Beauty, Brains, Leadership," has already grabbed positive press from CNN and The Washington Post-not bad for an unknown, 26-year-old computer whiz.

Then there's the marketing angle. For talk-show host Michael Savage, recently fired from MSNBC after telling a caller to "get AIDS and die," publicly discussing the idea of a gubernatorial bid is a good way to goose the ratings of his San FranciscoÐbased radio broadcast.

Ditto for Arianna Huffington. As "a former right-winger who has evolved into a compassionate and progressive populist," she's become the darling of California leftists. A political campaign would get her face on Sunday-morning news shows and her name on thousands of bumpers and billboards. (Like her rival Angelyne, she prefers to go by just her first name these days, either because "Arianna Huffington" would take up a lot of bumper space or, perhaps, she doesn't want to call attention to ex-husband Michael Huffington, a former GOP congressman who outed himself in Esquire magazine. He, too, is toying with the idea of a run.)

And then, just maybe, there's the possibility that one of these long shots could actually win. Not Angelyne or Georgy, certainly, but Arianna or Arnold, perhaps. The unprecedented special election will have no primary, which is a boost for liberal Republicans like Mr. Schwarzenegger or former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. Liberals can't seem to win a primary in a state party still packed with Reagan conservatives, but this October they can skip directly to a more liberal-leaning general election.

The rules in October also make it possible to win with a very small percentage of the vote. There's no provision for a run-off, and only a simple plurality is needed to move into the governor's mansion. In a crowded field, the winner might emerge with just 15 to 20 percent of the total vote. Add in the traditionally low turnout for special elections, and the situation becomes even more volatile.

With so much uncertainty and so much at stake, Democrats are clearly nervous about the governor's chances. So far the party is unified behind their embattled candidate, but that could change before Aug. 9, the last day for filing. Mr. Davis hovers around 20 percent in the polls, making him an attractive target for an ambitious, well-known Democratic challenger. If Ms. Huffington decides to make the race, campaigning against the governor from the left, another Democrat, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein or former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, might jump in to "save" the party.

They might want to get promo tips from Angelyne.


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