SACRAMENTO — The drive to remove Gov. Gray Davis from office qualified for the ballot Wednesday, clearing the way for a campaign unlike any other in California history.
Barring intervention by the California Supreme Court, the certification of the gubernatorial recall, announced by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, meant Davis would face a popular vote of confidence in late September or early October, less than a year after he was reelected.
The recall is endorsed by the state Republican Party and threatens to undermine Democrats' control of the largest state government in the nation.
In the 92 years since California voters added a recall provision to the state Constitution, no statewide official has faced such a vote.
"All of us are very aware that we are making history and setting history," Shelley said.
Already, a handful of Republicans are weighing the prospect of joining the campaign that will decide Davis' fate, a race that will unfold with lightning speed in political terms: Start-to-finish, it will last less than three months.
Shelley's announcement came just hours after lawyers for a Davis campaign committee asked the California Supreme Court to block the secretary of state from certifying the recall for the ballot. The request, rebuffed earlier in the day by a lower court, drew no immediate response Wednesday from the high court.
In San Francisco, Davis vowed to "fight like a Bengal tiger" to survive a challenge that will be tough, even for a veteran of three decades in California politics.
"One of my greatest strengths is that people have underestimated me since I was born," Davis said shortly before Shelley's announcement. "Every time they say I'm road kill, I continue to win, because I have great faith that the California voters are fair."
Democratic leaders have publicly vowed to support Davis and have attempted to cast the recall effort as a Republican attempt to push a conservative agenda that could not prevail in a normal election. Privately, however, some worry about Davis' low poll ratings and concede that he faces a difficult time holding off a challenge.
Under the state Constitution, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante must schedule an election to take place 60 to 80 days after Shelley's certification. That means the election will occur on one of three Tuesdays: Sept. 23, Sept. 30 or Oct. 7.
But what the ballot will look like remains a mystery. The Constitution empowers Bustamante, a Democrat, to call the recall election -- as well as an election to choose a successor "if appropriate."
Republicans have planned for months to run at least one candidate to replace Davis. On Tuesday, however, Bustamante said he might not schedule an election for a Davis successor to be held simultaneously with the recall itself. On Wednesday, Republicans voiced outrage at that idea.
If the recall prevailed, that scenario could position Bustamante to fill the vacancy left by the Democratic governor, at least temporarily.
"He's obviously trying to install himself," said George Gorton, a top political advisor to action-movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, a potential Republican candidate for governor. "It's not just a coincidence that he is a beneficiary of the maneuvers he is making."
Bustamante said Wednesday that he was awaiting legal opinions from Shelley, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and counsel to the Legislature on whether he needs to call an election for a Davis successor.
"I'm not a constitutional scholar, nor a constitutional lawyer," he said. "I'm going to rely on those attorneys who are -- and who represent the best legal thinking in government."
Lawyers at the secretary of state's office have advised Bustamante that candidates to succeed Davis should be able to run on the recall ballot, said Shelley, who described California's elections laws as "murky at best."
The governor's advisors expect that Bustamante will ultimately decide to combine the election of a Davis successor on the recall ballot. Bustamante pledged to take no more than 24 hours to announce the date, and he scheduled a 10 a.m. news conference for today.
Bustamante's choice of an election date will culminate a recall petition drive that began soon after Davis won a second term.
In November, Davis beat Republican Bill Simon Jr., 47% to 42%, but within weeks, his popularity plunged as the state's fiscal crisis deepened.
In February, the state GOP embraced a recall petition drive that posed little threat to Davis until Darrell Issa, a wealthy Republican congressman from the San Diego area, started paying professional crews to gather signatures. The recall campaign rapidly gained momentum from that point, with proponents submitting more than 1.6 million signatures to county election offices across California this month.