SAN DIEGO — Dismissing concerns that error-prone punch-card ballots could significantly affect California's chaotic recall race, a federal appeals court Tuesday put the historic election back on the calendar for Oct. 7.
In setting aside a decision last week by three of its most liberal judges, an 11-member panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also unanimously said California was too far down the road to delay the historic attempt to oust Gov. Gray Davis.
Elections officials have already spent more than $30 million to prepare for it, and more than 670,000 absentee ballots have already been cast.
"In short, the status quo that existed at the time the election was set cannot be restored because this election has already begun," the court said in its 12-page ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit, said it would not appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU had asserted that more than 40,000 votes in six counties could go uncounted by the outdated machines that were also at the center of controversy in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
With the date now certain — or at least as certain as can be given the continuously confounding recall race — Republican leaders stepped up jockeying to make sure they take advantage of the unique chance to oust Democrat Davis and win control of the country's biggest and most liberal state.
The state's leading Republican, who initially was against the recall, said Tuesday he is backing Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger. State senate Republican leader James Brulte subtly urged state Sen. Tom McClintock, the only other major Republican in the race, to bow out before he spoils the party's opportunity.
Voters on Oct. 7 will be asked to vote on whether to recall Davis and also will vote on a replacement in the event he is ousted.
A poll released Sunday indicated that if California voters first agree to oust Davis, about 28 percent said they'd vote for Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to replace him. Schwarzenegger was a close second with 26 percent, while McClintock trailed with about 14 percent.
GOP leaders fear that having two candidates in the race will split the party's votes and cost Republicans the election.
"If we're going to recall this governor and ensure the election of a Republican governor, then we've got to start taking steps to do that," Brulte said in a conference call with reporters. Brulte, who was co-chairman of McClintock's 2002 campaign for state comptroller, characterized his friend and colleague's attempt to become governor "simply a bridge too far."
In an even more surprising development, Republican U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego-area lawmaker who personally bankrolled the petition drive to put the oust-Davis initiative on the ballot, went so far as to suggest that Californians should vote no on the recall he helped instigate — unless one of the remaining Republicans bow out of the race.
At a speech Monday night and on CNN Tuesday, Issa hinted that McClintock was shaping up to be a political spoiler, and that either he or Schwarzenegger should get out in the next two days.
Issa and other Republicans began the drive to recall Davis by using California's relatively unique voter initiatives laws just a few months after Davis was re-elected to a second four-year term last November. They charge Davis has grossly mismanaged the state and caused its substantial fiscal problems.
Issa, who personally spent about $1.7 million to pay signature gatherers in the petition drive to get the recall initiative on the ballot, bowed out of the recall race last month. Other Republican candidates, including businessman Bill Simon and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, later quit as Schwarzenegger solidified his political appeal.
McClintock has adamantly said he won't quit and that he is still a legitimate contender.
Nonetheless, every day McClintock stays in the race, it hurts Republican chances, said Jack Pitney, a former Republican Party researcher who now teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. That's especially the case now that the date of the election is no longer in question, he said.
"Republicans have just heard the election is back on, and they're turning in absentee ballots again," Pitney said. "Some are casting votes for McClintock and people can't take them back (if he bows out later).
" Every day he remains in the race, he does real damage," Pitney said.
While not mentioning McClintock, Schwarzenegger on Tuesday praised the appeals court decision and the speed of the justices' ruling. The panel made its decision less than 24 hours after hearing arguments in the case, and just two working days after it agreed to reconsider an earlier decision by a three-judge panel that would have delayed the election, probably until the March presidential primary election.
"This legal process has made clear that a March election would deprive the people of California the opportunity to vote without delay and without confusion," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Wednesday, Schwarzenegger and other leading gubernatorial candidates could face their most heated questioning yet, at an evening debate in Sacramento. The debate, in which some of the questions already have been given to candidates, is the only one that Schwarzenegger has agreed to attend. His critics have lambasted him for failing to participate in the other multi-candidate debates.
Candidates will be asked about everything from their specific recommendations on budget cuts to expanding charter schools and attracting new businesses to the state. The debate is sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association.