JIM LEHRER: Spencer Michels reports the California recall story.
SPENCER MICHELS: Just eight months after winning re-election, California's Governor Gray Davis is back campaigning; this time, against a possible recall.
GRAY DAVIS: I'm proud of all you guys.
SPOKESMAN: Thank you.
SPENCER MICHELS: The 60-year-old democrat could be voted out of office if the recall makes the ballot, and more than half the voters opt to fire him.
WOMAN: I don't think he should have been put in office to begin with. He has done nothing for the state of California.
WOMAN: It's the easy way out. I don't think it's going to change anything even if he is recalled.
PROTESTORS: Drop Davis now!
SPENCER MICHELS: Dissatisfaction with the governor is widespread, according to Mark DiCamillo, director of the well-respected field poll, which found 67 percent of voters held an unfavorable opinion of Davis.
MARK DiCAMILLO, Field Poll: These are the lowest job performance ratings of any sitting governor in the history of the field poll, so there is a great deal of angst towards the governor.
SPENCER MICHELS: As governor, Davis has faced two enormous problems in his nearly five years on the job. He was re-elected despite a first term beset by energy problems, blackouts, and high electricity prices, and economic woes caused by failing dot-coms. The resulting drop in state tax revenues at the beginning of his second term put the state budget far out of balance. Legally, the budget must be in balance, and so the governor had to make major cuts to popular programs like education. But it was when Davis suggested raising taxes to balance the budget, that the recall effort went into high gear.
WOMAN: What he's done with the economy of California and the business of California is criminal, and I think he should be accountable for it.
SPENCER MICHELS: The governor doesn't have the charisma or personal popularity to offset the economic woes, according to pollster DiCamillo.
MARK DiCAMILLO: Well, there is really no reservoir of personal appeal. Ronald Reagan, for example, had a very high level of personal appeal even at times when his job performance ratings were low. But with Gray Davis, there is no differentiation at all. And I think that is one of the problems that he has when we go through bad times.
SPOKESMAN: Recall Governor Davis.
SPENCER MICHELS: Anti-tax Republicans began circulating petitions to recall the governor this spring, aiming for 900,000 valid signatures needed to place a recall on the ballot. Leading the charge has been representative Darrell Issa, a two-term Republican congressman from vista, in northern San Diego County, a conservative bastion in a state in which all statewide office holders are Democrats. Issa is the wealthy founder of a company that makes auto alarm systems. He has donated practically all the money, so far, to qualify the gubernatorial recall-- more than a million dollars.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: I believe we do have a corrupt governor, one who has made the state a pay-for-play state. Anyone, anyone you talk to that does business with the governor will tell you that it costs a certain amount of money to get a meeting with the governor.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: ...Just a bunch of sour grapes by a bunch of losers.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis denies the accusation. He hit back hard, alluding to fact that issa was investigated and arrested, though never convicted, for two auto thefts, and later for arson on a building he owned.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: Darrell Issa desperately wants to be governor. Here's a man who's been arrested several times. He's on the far right. He has no legitimacy, and he's putting the state through the wringer for his own personal ambitions.
PROTESTERS: We're protesting against the Davis recall today. We need your signatures.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although it won't affect what gets on the ballot, Davis' forces have sent their own signature gatherers into the field to get people to oppose the recall, which, they claim will cost taxpayers $30 million.
SPOKESPERSON: We're already in a big budget crisis, and you're going to do this, make it even more costly for us? And it's also very divisive and very bad for the state.
WOMAN: There's a reason why we have elections every four years. Gray Davis won. If you don't like him, don't elect him the next time. But don't try to go around the basic electoral system. It's only going to break it down worse in the long run.
SPENCER MICHELS: In 1911, California Governor Hiram Johnson initiated the recall process itself, which is now in the spotlight. It was a progressive era reform, pushed though to stem the power of corrupt officials doing the bidding of the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, which essentially ran the state. Davis sees the current drive as a corruption of that original purpose.
GOV. GRAY DAVIS: Clearly, a recall was meant for a great abuse of office. It's an extraordinary remedy that should not be used just because you disagree with someone's policies. Obviously, seven million people made a decision last year that I was to implement the policies that I campaigned on.
SPOKESMAN: I believe the most important thing is to get rid of a bad governor. He struck out on handling the energy problem. He's striking out on dealing with a deficit that he created.
SPENCER MICHELS: In a recall election, Californians would first vote on whether to get rid of the governor. Then they would choose a successor from a list of candidates who want to run, irrespective of party. The candidate with the most votes wins, without a runoff. Most prominent Democrats, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, have said they won't run, since to do so would look like an endorsement of the recall. But if they don't put someone up, and the recall succeeds, they hand the victory to Republicans, who have several potential candidates.
SPOKESMAN: Just sign an application, please, to get rid of Gray Davis.
SPENCER MICHELS: The recall organizers want to get enough signatures soon, so they can schedule an election in the fall. So far, they've turned in about 40 percent of what they need. If the gathering takes longer, the election could be scheduled to coincide with the spring Democratic presidential primaries, when many pro-Davis people would be voting.
WOMAN: I'm not the greatest Davis fan, but I don't want to see a Republican get in there so easily.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the California legislature the recall battle has encouraged some lawmakers to resist compromise over the state budget, with Republicans not eager to improve the standing of the embattled Democratic governor.
SPOKESPERSON: The government wouldn't pay for it. It would be up to the individual.