SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- State officials Thursday set an Oct. 7 date for the election to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, giving him less than three months to fight for his political life.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante announced the date a day after state officials certified that the Republican-led drive to recall Davis had collected more than enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.
It will be the nation's first gubernatorial recall election in 82 years.
Candidates seeking to replace Davis must now scramble to start their campaigns and declare their candidacies by Aug. 9 -- 59 days before the election. Bustamante, himself a Democrat, selected the latest possible date allowed by California law for the unprecedented recall election.
By Thursday, just one GOP candidate -- Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall signature-gathering effort with $1.7 million of his own money -- was definitely in the running. Several others were weighing a decision; a new name that emerged Thursday was former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp.
The state's Democratic officeholders have closed ranks behind Davis and say they will not run. Davis has branded the Republican-led drive to oust him "a hostile takeover by the right," and allies have said they expect to spend $15 million to $20 million to campaign against the recall.
The recall effort has set the stage for a bruising political battle.
"Up until today it was a referendum on Gray Davis," state Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said. "Now it's a comparison between Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat progressive, against a Republican bum."
"Having an election is very, very helpful," he said.
Recall supporters say they are planning a "very aggressive campaign" with a $15 million budget. "We know the job's only half done and we have a lot of work to do," said Dave Gilliard, director of Rescue California Recall Gray Davis.
Davis, who is less than a year into his second term, has seen his approval ratings drop into the 20s amid a slump in the economy and a staggering deficit projected at more than $38 billion. He has been accused of spending recklessly during the 1990s and dithering during the state's electricity crisis two years ago.
Kemp, the former New York congressman who was the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 1996, was called Thursday by several supporters urging him to allow his name on the ballot, according to three GOP officials with ties to the former housing secretary.
The associates, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kemp was flattered but it was unclear how seriously he was considering the race. They said Kemp has family ties to California and considered a gubernatorial run there years ago.
Republican Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, said Thursday that he would consider running if Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been mulling a run, does not get into the race.
"I think Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is my first choice, would do a tremendous job," Riordan told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. "If for some reason Arnold decides not to do, it I will take a hard look."
Schwarzenegger's spokesman said the actor has not made a decision.
Republican businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, said Wednesday he would announce his plans on Saturday.
The recall ballot will have two parts, with voters first deciding whether or not to oust Davis and then choosing from a list of candidates to replace him. People voting to keep Davis still would be able to cast a vote for a potential successor.
All that replacement candidates need to get on the ballot are signatures from 65 registered voters of their own party and $3,500, or 10,000 signatures in lieu of the filing fee. If the list of contenders is long, a new governor could be elected with a relatively small percentage of the vote.
The campaign promised to be short, expensive and fierce.
"You're talking about a total free-for-all, an election where anything can happen," said Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow. "It's a situation in which it's very difficult to choose a strategy because you're not talking about two candidates going head to head and someone's got to get a majority."
Bustamante had thrown the election scenario into question this week when he said he might not have authority only to call for a replacement election on the same ballot as the recall election. If Davis were ousted without a replacement, Bustamante would become governor, at least temporarily, under the state constitution.
"My job was to set the date and forward a proclamation," Bustamante said at a news conference Thursday. "I left it to the attorneys with the expertise in those areas to draft the language."
Davis allies are awaiting a ruling by the state Supreme Court after filing a last-ditch appeal to block the recall from making the ballot. The appeals alleges illegal signature-gathering by recall backers.
The last gubernatorial recall election was in 1921, when North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier become the only governor in U.S. history to be removed from office.
AP Political Writer Ron Fournier contributed to this story.