SACRAMENTO -- Scores of Californians took the once-in-a-lifetime shot to run for governor Saturday in the state's unprecedented recall election as Democrats successfully whittled their own field to one major backup candidate in case Gov. Gray Davis is ousted.
Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi dropped out two hours before the deadline to file papers, leaving Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the only prominent Democrat on the ballot. That raised hopes of keeping the governor's office in party hands if the unpopular governor is voted out Oct. 7.
If voters turn Davis out of office, Bustamante will compete against a field that includes last year's gubernatorial runner-up, Bill Simon, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former baseball czar Peter Ueberroth, all Republicans, and columnist Arianna Huffington, an independent.
The field of more than 90 candidates also consists of ordinary Californians, such as a school teacher, a bail bondsman and a 100-year-old woman, and less ordinary ones such as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.
Despite the onslaught of wannabes aiming to run the nation's most populous state, Davis remained confident Saturday.
"Many people are trying to become the governor. I am the governor," Davis said to laughter after a bill signing at a health clinic in Santa Monica. "Whether the people of the state want me to stay 60 days or three-and-a-half years -- as hopefully they will eventually decide -- I am going to do my level best to improve their lives every day I have."
A new Time-CNN poll released Saturday, however, showed voters leaning toward recalling Davis.
Fifty-four percent said they would vote Davis out, while 35 percent were opposed. Of the better-known candidates, 25 percent chose Schwarzenegger, 15 percent chose Bustamante, while others were in single digits. The poll of 508 voters was conducted Friday and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Davis, who has seen his approval ratings plummet in recent months, is the first governor of the Golden State to face a recall.
Voter anger has been building since the state's 2000-2001 energy crisis. Since then, Californians have witnessed the decline of the state's technology sector and a record $38 billion budget deficit, which triggered a tripling of the vehicle tax, forced college fees to rise as much as 30 percent and has threatened state employees with layoffs and pay cuts.
If the campaign against him succeeds, Davis would be only the nation's second governor to be recalled. In 1921, North Dakota voters ousted Gov. Lynn Frazier.
The final casting call for the summer's political blockbuster unfolded Saturday, as a fraction of the nearly 500 people who took out applications to run turned in their necessary papers to get on the burgeoning ballot.
Schwarzenegger arrived at the Los Angeles County recorder's office with his wife, Maria Shriver, to the shrieks of gawkers. He vowed to be the people's governor as he signed autographs.
"I will be there for everybody, young and old, men and women alike. It doesn't make any difference," he said.
Schwarzenegger greeted Huffington, who arrived at the same time to file. She and Shriver hugged.
Huffington called for more fuel-efficient vehicles and noted that Schwarzenegger had arrived in an SUV while she arrived in a hybrid vehicle. There were a few boos and cries of "Arnold, Arnold."
Ueberroth, who also was chief organizer of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, said he could bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican businessman said he would only serve the three years remaining on Davis' term, which is up in January 2007.
"We're not going to run any negative ads. We're not going to trash-talk the other candidates," Ueberroth's consultant, Dan Schnur, said after campaign papers were filed in Orange County. "He's going to devote his time and attention to talking about his credentials and how they've prepared him for taking on an economic crisis of this magnitude."
Brisk activity at county election offices across the state capped four days punctuated with bombshell announcements, beginning when the state's most popular politician, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, brushed aside efforts to draft her as a Democratic backup to Davis.
That was trumped by the Hollywood moment: Schwarzenegger walked onto the stage of the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and announced his candidacy after his aides said he was leaning against running.
The following day, Bustamante and Garamendi broke earlier pledges not to run and announced their intentions in the state capital.
Later that day, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort with $1.7 million of his own money, tearfully announced in San Diego that he would not run. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said he wouldn't run and endorsed Schwarzenegger.
Nearly 500 people took out papers to run in the first election of its kind in the state. But with the $3,500 needed to qualify, along with 65 signatures, the final number was much lower. The fee could be waived if 10,000 signatures were submitted.
The recall ignited passions that were evident during a clash Saturday in Sacramento between anti-recall forces and recall proponents. Police Sgt. Justin Risley said there were no arrests after some pushing and shoving.
The opportunity to become the state's chief executive had fired political aspirations in all corners of the state that had "only in California" written all over it.
Flynt entered, along with a Sacramento bail bondsman and the owner of a discount cigarette chain.
B.E. Smith, 56, who served two years in prison for growing marijuana, said he entered the governor's race to campaign against victimless crimes.
"As governor, I will pardon all victimless crime convictions, and I'll release them from prison," said Smith, who lives in the northwest corner of Trinity County.
Mathilda Karel Spak, 100, said her age shouldn't hamper her chances of winning the election.
"I've made plans until 105," the centenarian said. "Then I'll take things easy."
Porn actress Mary Carey, wearing a low-cut black dress, said she would install a webcam in the governor's mansion.