SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal appeals court postponed California's Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall Monday, throwing a chaotic campaign into turmoil and putting the U.S. Supreme Court in position to influence another pivotal election.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put off the historic election to a date uncertain, ruling that some votes would be cast on unreliable punch-cards ballots -- the same system at the center of so much controversy after the last presidential election in Florida.
"This recall has been like a roller coaster. There are more surprises than you can possibly imagine," Gov. Gray Davis told reporters after appearing with former President Clinton at a school dedication in Compton. "I'll continue to make my case to the people that a recall is not good for them."
In siding with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the three-judge appeals court panel suggested one possible date would be the regularly scheduled March 2 presidential primary -- by that time, six California counties have promised to replace their punch-card machines. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court could reinstate the Oct. 7 date.
If the high court agrees to hear the case, it would again be embroiled in another highly partisan political issue -- one Democrats have said echoes the 2000 election in which the court declared Republican George Bush the winner.
The California official responsible for elections, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, told county elections officials to prepare for the Oct. 7 election and said he would announce Tuesday whether he would appeal.
Shelley was consulting with fellow Democrat Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who said the state could ask the entire appeals court to review the smaller panel's ruling.
The decision, which the court stayed for a week to allow for appeals, applies to the recall and two ballot propositions. At least one of the groups that sponsored California's first voter-driven election to unseat its chief executive promised to bypass the 9th Circuit and appeal Tuesday to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dave Gilliard, senior strategist for Rescue California, said the group would ask Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who oversees the lower court, to halt the order until after the election. If O'Connor declines, the group will ask the whole court to hear the case.
"We just don't have the time," he said. "We're pretty confident that we'll win. We think their reasoning is all wrong."
Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only major Democrat vying to succeed him if he is recalled, and Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to continue campaigning as the courts decide when to hold the election.
"We will continue our campaign until there is finality in the courts," Bustamante said.
Independent columnist Arianna Huffington praised the decision, calling voter disenfranchisement "the dirty little secret of American politics." Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Northridge called it an "outrageous decision" by the "laughingstock" of the federal judiciary.
Schwarzenegger issued a statement asking Shelley "to immediately appeal this decision on behalf of the citizens who have exercised their constitutional right to recall Gray Davis, and who expect an election on Oct. 7."
Davis and Bustamante made a scheduled appearance with Clinton in Los Angeles. And, trying to soften his image with women voters, Schwarzenegger assured talk show host Oprah Winfrey that reports of a salacious, party-hard past were more tall tale than truth.
The action movie star wants to appeal to women, The Oprah Winfrey Show's primary audience. A Los Angeles Times poll published last week reported that only 45 percent of women voters have a favorable view of Schwarzenegger, compared to 58 percent of men.
In Monday's season premiere, Schwarzenegger assured Winfrey, a friend, that old magazine articles reporting everything from marijuana use to group sex reflected his strategy during the 1970s to pump up interest in body building, the sport that made him famous.
"We really were out there doing crazy things. We were trying to get the attention," he said. "At that time I didn't think I was going to run for governor."
Before Schwarzenegger took the stage, Winfrey asked his wife -- television journalist Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family -- whether she had been raised to look the other way if her husband was a womanizer.
"You know that ticks me off," Shriver told Winfrey's Chicago studio. "I am my own woman, I have not been bred to look the other way. I accept him with all his strengths and all his weaknesses, as he does me."
Back in California, Davis spent a second day with Clinton, the first of many high-profile Democrats campaigning against the recall this week.
Davis joined Clinton and Bustamante at the dedication of the William Jefferson Clinton elementary school in Compton and later at a fund-raiser at the home of financier Ron Burkle.
The school appearance came two days after state Democrats held an emergency meeting to address their campaign strategy, re-emphasizing their opposition to the recall while endorsing Bustamante to replace Davis should the recall succeed.
Monday's court decision relied heavily on the paid testimony of Roy Saltman, an election systems expert who warned in a 1988 government report that punch-card balloting was highly flawed and should be banned. The report was largely ignored and Saltman's advice mostly unheeded until the 2000 presidential election.
"These ballots are inherently fragile," said Saltman, who declined to say how much he was paid to testify. "You are essentially destroying the ballot as you vote."
The case is Southwest Voter Registration Education Project v. Shelley, 03-56498.
Kravets reported from San Francisco, Fouhy from Los Angeles; Associated Press Writers Don Babwin in Chicago and Erica Werner in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.