SAN FRANCISCO - With a federal judicial panel likely to reinstate the Oct. 7 date for the California recall election, Gov. Gray Davis and the candidates vying to succeed him are preparing for a final two-week campaign push.

An opinion poll released yesterday showed that the race is tightening in Davis' favor.

An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments today on whether to uphold a ruling by a smaller panel last week that the election must be postponed until six counties still using punch-card ballots can upgrade to more reliable voting machines.

The judges chosen for the new panel are said to be more conservative than the three who made the ruling. Observers say the new panel will likely reverse the ruling.

"As they say at the racetrack, we're going into the clubhouse turn," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College.

The best-known Republican in the race, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was preparing to step into the spotlight for his first - and, chances are, his only - debate of the campaign.

Schwarzenegger, who has called Wednesday's forum "the Super Bowl of debates," is preparing extensively for it, aides said.

"He meets regularly with his team of policy advisers and experts, and now the focus is on the debate," said campaign spokesman Todd Harris.

Davis enters the week buoyed by poll numbers showing that he is gaining momentum. A statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California released yesterday showed that 53 percent of likely voters want to oust Davis, down from 58 percent last month. Forty-two percent said they would vote to keep him in office.

The opinion poll mirrored two other statewide polls released this month showing that although a majority of voters wanted to recall Davis, the margin has tightened.

The same poll showed Schwarzenegger virtually tied with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only Democrat in the race among candidates vying to replace Davis if he is recalled. The poll found 28 percent support for Bustamante and 26 percent for Schwarzenegger, with 14 percent saying they support Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock.

The findings fueled new speculation about whether McClintock will drop out of the race so as not to split the Republican vote and hand the election to Bustamante. McClintock has said repeatedly that he does not plan to quit.

Pitney said the debate will give Schwarzenegger his best chance to win over conservative voters, who are the core of McClintock's support.

"The debate is an opportunity for Schwarzenegger to close the sale with a lot of Republicans and conservatives, or an opportunity for other candidates to stop him cold," Pitney said.

Davis, who will not participate in the debate, planned to campaign this week with Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democratic presidential candidate. Lieberman will also campaign with Bustamante, who is his California campaign chairman.

"We are going to stay focused on the strategy that has gotten us through this entire surreal process," said Davis campaign spokesman Peter Ragone. "The governor is going to talk candidly with voters at town hall meetings and will be joined by Democratic party leaders to point out that this is a power grab by Republicans and is fundamentally unfair."