In America, children are raised to believe that anyone with enough ambition, talent and luck can grow up to become president. In California, voters are about to find out that anyone with $3,500 and 65 friends can at least try to become governor.
By yesterday afternoon, with eight days to go before the deadline for declaring a candidacy in the Oct. 7 recall election, 258 people statewide had taken the first step of filing papers with their county registrars.
Hollywood billboard fixture Angelyne has pulled papers with the Los Angeles County registrar. So has sometime pornographer Larry Flynt.
Michael Jackson, Bill Murray and Steve Young are angling to run - though not the famous Michael Jackson, Bill Murray and Steve Young.
Other doppelgangers include a San Leandro Republican called Bob Dole, a San Francisco Democrat named Dan Feinstein, the mysterious S. Issa of Arcadia, and a clutch of Davises. Epitomizing this quirky blend of politics and entertainment, Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger will announce Wednesday whether he will run for governor - then elaborate on his decision that evening on The Tonight Show.
About 50 possible candidates have paid the nonrefundable fee, raising the possibility of a ballot scores or even hundreds of names long. The punch-card ballot can accommodate about 300 names; after that, poll workers would have to give each voter two cards, a daunting prospect for election officials.
If Gov. Gray Davis loses the recall, the top vote-getter would be elected governor.
For the politicians interested in launching a serious challenge to Davis, the proliferation of candidates offers a host of problems, some logistical, others strategic.
Voters might get confused if too many candidates end up on the ballot, said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Normally, folks like that might turn up in a primary and then get weeded out," he said. "This time, they're going to end up in the main event."
Moreover, part of Davis' strategy is likely to rely on exploiting the presence of fringe or joke candidates to encourage voters to reject the recall, he said.
Davis and other Democrats could warn that "if the four or five major candidates split the 'sensible' vote, then conceivably, a fringe candidate with a famous name or a following could sneak up on them," Pitney said. "It ups the fear factor."
State Democratic Chairman Art Torres has begun sounding that theme, saying that the recall had turned California into "the laughingstock of America."
"It reminds me of that little car that goes into the circus arena," he said in an interview. "All of a sudden, you can't believe that 25 clowns are coming out of that car."
The vast majority of the people who have taken out papers may not be clowns, but they certainly are political novices.
Among them are a few earnest activists who volunteer that they can help steer the state out of its troubles.
Georgy Russell, 26, a Democrat from the Bay Area who is selling "Georgy for Governor" thongs and boxers on her Web site, says she will campaign for "clean elections, clean energy, and a cleaned-up criminal justice system."
In Los Angeles, filmmaker Brian Flemming, the man behind Bat Boy: The Musical, announced that he will run on a promise to resign in favor of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, a registered Democrat and a self-described "staunch civil libertarian," paid his $3,500 filing fee this week and said he would consider spending a substantial amount of his money if the public takes his run seriously.
And then there are the outright opportunists. Art Brown, for example, a moviemaker from Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, is using the recall as a vehicle to publicize his forthcoming short film, which he advertises on his Web site.
Candidates who have paid the registration fee upfront must collect 65 to 100 signatures of voters registered to their party. Otherwise, they can take out petitions to collect signatures in lieu of the fee, in which case the charge is prorated against the number of signatures they submit before the Aug. 9 deadline.
The portion of the election code that specifies the fee and signature requirements says that it does not apply to recalls. The secretary of state's office is using it as a guideline because no other provision of the election code says what the fee should be, but one opponent of the recall has asked the California Supreme Court to rule that the rules for getting on the ballot are improper.
For some candidates, getting donations to cover the fee is their first campaign hurdle.
Prospective candidate Steve "Integrity" Young, a comedian who says he legally changed his middle name this week, answers his phone, "Hello, Steve Young for governor, how much do you want to give us?"
On Monday, he listed his candidacy on eBay, and though the Web site quickly delisted the auction, Young has collected $2,000 in pledges from friends. "If I get the $3,500, I'll take it seriously," he said.
Young, who also jokes that Steve Young is a more recognizable name than U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican who funded the recall drive, may be joined in the celebrity double category by Jackson, Dole and Feinstein, a distant relative of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom some Democrats would like to see enter the race.
An Andrew Davis and a Scott Davis have taken out their papers for the race, but two other Gray Davises - who remind callers that they were born "Gray," which the current governor acquired as a nickname - say they do not intend to run.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.