SACRAMENTO - A man stands on a street corner holding a cardboard sign with a scribbled message asking for help - a small contribution, perhaps.
He's not perched along a highway off-ramp. This is a palm-tree lined avenue in front of California's pristine white capitol. And this panhandler is clean cut and well-dressed.
His sign reads, “I'm running for governor. Please help. God bless.”
Kevin Richter, a Republican and software developer from Manteca, about an hour south of Sacramento, is among the 135 people whose names will clutter the ballot in California's historic gubernatorial recall election.
“I hear panhandlers do pretty well,” Mr. Richter said with a smile, having done well enough to partially cover his $3,500 candidate filing fee.
At the moment, Mr. Richter and his fellow gubernatorial aspirants are waiting to find out if the election will be Oct. 7, as scheduled. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will hear arguments tomorrow on whether it should postpone the vote, most likely until March.
The court is not expected to consider the inconvenience such a delay might be to the candidates whose fund-raising method is begging.
This is not a big problem for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder turned-actor turned-politician, who is backed by most of California's Republican establishment and draws the international media. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante probably will do all right as well, because he is backed by much of the state Democratic Party - despite the party's complicated message to voters: “Keep incumbent Gov. Gray Davis in office, but if you don't, vote for Mr. Bustamante!”
For most of the other candidates - with perhaps the exception of Republican challenger Tom McClintock, a state senator - it would be a terrific struggle to maintain visibility or remain financially viable for nearly six more months. No more than five “serious” candidates are expected to be in the next debate, on Wednesday. It is the only debate Mr. Schwarzenegger will attend.
But just because there are well over 100 candidates no one has heard of does not mean they all lack seriousness, even the panhandlers.
Once you get past the publicity seekers on the candidate list - Diff'rent Strokes actor Gary Coleman; porn king Larry Flynt; comedian Gallagher, and porn star Mary Cook, also known as Mary Carey - you can find people such as William S. Chambers, a Republican with a long gray ponytail who was recently promoting himself at a California State Fair voter registration event.
Reporters showed little interest in Mr. Chambers' gun control, abortion, and immigration positions, but the cameras followed Mr. Schwarzenegger's every move.
“Like so many other people in the last 15, 20 years or so, I'm tired of looking at the candidates and saying that none of them looks like they are going to represent me,” said Mr. Chambers, a railroad switchman from Auburn, near Sacramento. “Most of them deal with special interests, accept campaign funds from special-interest groups. I think it taints an election.”
Like many Californians, California's bumper crop of gubernatorial candidates tend to be angry and disillusioned, either with Mr. Davis, the Republicans who bankrolled the recall effort, or both. They include professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners, and blue-collar workers, each of whom had to fork over $3,500 to get on the ballot.
They champion everything from smokers' rights and repeal of the recently tripled vehicle tax to better health care and school vouchers.
“It's the gap between the ideal California and the real California,” said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles. “The real California consists of potholes, expensive real estate, long commutes, and racial tension. There are still swimming pools and movie stars, but most people don't get to see them. People want to bring the reality into line with the ideal.
“Since the governor is the executive, he's the most likely target for all this discontent. And he made his own situation worse a couple of years ago with the blackouts. A lot of people had the reaction when we had the blackouts that this is something that happens in a Third World country, not California,” Professor Pitney said.
Panhandler Richter began his run on a lark and designed a Web site to allow Californians to vent about their government.
“I don't necessarily blame [Mr. Davis] for energy [problems], the economy,” he said. “There's a lot of things that are out of the governor's control. He gets credit for the good stuff and gets blamed for the bad stuff.
“The problem I have is the whole issue of misleading the public when he was getting elected. He knew the [budget shortfall] numbers. He chose to go with the lowest one [before the election]. I'm tired of honesty being vacant from public office.”
Lou Cannon, a biographer of former President Reagan and a former White House correspondent, said East Coast pundits and reporters who sniff at the California “circus” miss the point.
“I'm an American as well as a Californian,” Mr. Cannon said. “I think the fact that the media has been portraying this as goofy California doesn't reflect well on the media. There are serious issues involved of frustration and alienation. I think the media has trivialized this.”
But Mr. Pitney warned this newfound political enthusiasm could backfire.
“People are talking about politics, and that's a good thing,” he said. “The danger is when it's all over, and the governor - whether it's Davis, Bustamante or Schwarzenegger - has to deal with the same budget numbers and serve up the same menu of bad choices.”