The effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis started out as almost a right-wing joke, so far-fetched and underfunded it was laughable. But as the state's budget headed deeper into the red and wealthy Davis opponent Darrell Issa reached deeper into his pocket, polls began showing the recall was a serious threat to the Democratic stranglehold on California. By the time the petitions were submitted in late July-with nearly 50 percent more signatures than needed-no one was laughing any longer. Comedians did get a kick out Arnold Schwarzenegger's late entry into the race, but the liberal Republican movie star had wide appeal with independent voters. Despite a slew of court challenges-and almost as many accusations of sexual impropriety-Mr. Schwarzenegger provided a fitting punch line on Oct. 7, winning almost 50 percent of the vote in a field of 135 candidates.
A former first lady stayed out, a former general jumped in, and a former nominee passed over his former running mate to endorse a former governor: For the Democrats who would be president, 2003 was all about positioning and posturing. For a while there were 10 candidates in the crowded field, though Florida Sen. Bob Graham became an early casualty. Fringe figures like Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich continued their farcical campaigns, while good-on-paper candidates like Rep. Dick Gephardt or Sens. John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman failed to gain much traction.
As the year ended, the clear-and surprising-frontrunner was physician Howard Dean, the liberal ex-governor of tiny Vermont. With his Dec. 9 endorsement by Al Gore, Dr. Dean added organizational strength to his fundraising prowess, distancing himself still further from top-tier challengers like Sen. John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark.
Turning up Republican
The Democrats started and ended the year with political victories, but most everything in between was good news for Republicans. Just before the 108th Congress got down to work in January, Democrat Ed Case bested 43 other candidates in a special election to take over for the late Patsy Mink in Hawaii's 2nd Congressional District. And in the year's last major race, 32-year-old conservative whiz kid Bobby Jindal narrowly lost to Democrat Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana's gubernatorial bid. Those losses, however, did little to dampen the GOP's electoral bliss. In addition to a big win in California, Republicans turned out a sitting Democratic governor in Mississippi and captured the Kentucky statehouse for the first time in 32 years-wins that gave President Bush a big organizational advantage heading into the 2004 campaign.