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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
Poll galvanises California voters
By Katty Kay
BBC correspondent in Los Angeles

In a scrubby back garden in Long Beach, California, Kurt "Tachikaze" Rightmyer claps his hands, summons the spirits and challenges his impressively robust opponent to another bout of sumo.

Arnold Schwarzenegger during a rally in San Jose
Schwarzenegger is seen by many as a firm favourite
It is Sunday afternoon and Mr Rightmyer is taking a little break from the tiring task of campaigning for Governor of the world's fifth largest economy.

Yes, this is California where a sumo wrestler can aspire to the state house and a superstar must jostle for a place on the same ballot as the 134 other gubernatorial candidates in Tuesday's state election.

It is of course tempting to dismiss the spectacle that has become the California Recall as just another amusing instalment of West Coast wackiness.

After all, the sumo champ, the porn star and the "cocktail lounge owner" who are also up for election make Arnold Schwarzenegger look downright serious.

This is a wake-up call for America
Reva Renee Renz, candidate
And hey, when the local deli offers 19 different types of green tea to go with your sushi, what's so bad about 135 different candidates for governor.

But despite the fact that the local Game Show television network has launched a new hit series called Who Wants to be Governor of California? - in Los Angeles it sometimes seems things are not actually real until they are on TV - there really is something more serious going on here.

Through this recall election Californians, who are often more interested in blockbusters than budgets, have become engaged with the democratic process.

Bar talk

Reva Renee Renz, the slim blonde owner of the Devas bar in Orange County, threw her hat into the recall ring almost as a joke after a rowdy evening in her bar.

California Governor Gray Davis during his meeting with students in Sacramento
Gray Davis: Critics say he does not connect with Californians

Now she is candidate 119 on the list.

Her election platform - "10 reasons to vote for Reva" - is not entirely serious. It lists her sexy legs along with her promise to cut taxes.

But what has surprised her is the reaction in her bar.

Everyone at Deva's is talking politics and, even more surprisingly, on Tuesday they will be turning out to vote.

"This is a wake up call for America," Reva insists.

Free pass for Arnie

It is hard to work out from the morass of polling data whether the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct have seriously damaged Arnie's chances of beating Reva Renz to become Governor Schwarzenegger.

But the overall impression seems to be that many Californians, women and Democrats among them, have given a surprisingly Gallic shrug to the revelations.

It could be that they never really expected much else from the Teutonic muscle man. Several Los Angelinos have suggested that these rumours had been around for a long time.

Arnie appears to have been given something of a free pass precisely because he is a film star and not a politician.

Which, in the end, may be precisely the reason that Californians elect him over their very experienced but rather wooden governor.

Mr Gray

Which takes me to Gray Davis.

What is it about this slim, silver-haired politician that Californians hate so much?

At a rally in downtown Los Angeles, just two days before what could well be the most important election of his career, Gray Davis could not even fill a small car park with supporters.

He had come to sign a health care bill at a local medical centre, and - once his campaign team had rustled up the hospital staff - there were almost more people on the platform than in the audience.

The empty seats were a bitter contrast to the screaming fans that regularly pack rallies for the Terminator.

Arnie motivates his crowd with triumphant one-liners but Mr Davis was stiff and earnest.

The one time the small Los Angeles gathering did attempt a rolling chant of "Recall No, Gray Yes", the governor seemed embarrassed, anxious to hush the shouts as quickly as possible so he could get on with his prepared lines.

Even a supporter in the crowd admitted she was there mainly because she disapproved of the recall process, the most enthusiasm she could muster for Mr Davis was "he really hasn't been such a horrible governor, you know".

And that rally exposed Mr Davis' biggest political failing - he is incapable of connecting with Californian voters on purely human terms. And in America that is something a politician simply cannot afford.

Sure, policies matter. But as both George Bush senior in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000 found to their cost, if you cannot feel the people's pain then your political career is likely to be terminated.


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