SAN FRANCISCO -- The state Supreme Court declined Friday to halt the recall vote of Gov. Gray Davis, virtually assuring California its first such election targeting a governor. Davis and potential opponents geared up for a quick -- and likely dirty -- campaign.
The court's decision came two days after the state's top election official announced that opponents had gathered enough signatures to call a special election, and a day after Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante set the Oct. 7 election date.
The high court's action leaves the recall date intact despite allegations that signatures on recall petitions were improperly gathered.
Still, the allegations could be heard in court Aug. 8 and the case could return to the state Supreme Court for a final decision.
Pro-Davis forces all but conceded the recall was on, and were gearing up to wage a political campaign, not a court battle to block the election.
"From this point forward, our assumption is that the recall is on the ballot. That is our primary focus," said Eric Bauman, a spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall, which brought the legal challenge.
Dave Gilliard, director of Rescue California Recall Gray Davis, the anti-Davis group that fostered the recall, said, "This is what we expected from the Supreme Court."
"No court has accepted any of the governor's arguments to stop or slow down this recall and now we're going forward," he said. "We're going to have an election."
The Republican-dominated court was responding to an emergency petition by pro-Davis forces. They charged that the 900,000 signatures of registered voters required to force an election were obtained fraudulently.
The court, voting 5-0 with two absentees, did not rule on the merits of the charges. Instead, the court declined to halt the election pending litigation in Los Angeles, where a trial judge and appeals court declined to hear the challenge on an expedited basis.
Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall, in its petition to the justices, alleged that many of the thousands of paid signature gatherers -- receiving up to $1 for every signature of a registered voter they gathered -- were themselves not registered voters or California residents.
State law demands that signature gatherers for recall elections be registered voters and California residents.
GOP Rep. Darrell Issa bankrolled the recall drive with $1.7 million of his own money and has declared his intention to put his name on the ballot. Issa and other Republican forces have accused Davis of steering California into a $38 billion deficit, which the governor denies.
Friday's legal action, for now, leaves unimpeded the first recall election against a sitting California governor. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley announced that Davis opponents had gathered enough signatures of registered voters to force an election.
Candidates hoping to replace Davis if he is recalled have only until Aug. 9 to get into the race, and intense jockeying is already under way over who could end up leading the nation's most populous state.
Under California law, candidates to replace the subject of a recall must file their papers 59 days before the vote.
Though Issa is the only declared major-party candidate so far, other potential Republican contenders include actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, last year's failed GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks.
Still another Republican possibility emerged Thursday -- Jack Kemp, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996 and a former New York congressman. And two more names surfaced Friday: Former GOP congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Michael Huffington and former governor George Deukmejian.
Huffington took out nominating papers to run. "He's been contemplating it and made a final decision this past week to file the papers," said Huffington's spokesman Bruce Nestande.
Huffington served one term in Congress from 1992 to 1994 before losing a close and bitter Senate race to Dianne Feinstein that broke spending records. He made headlines in 1998 when he disclosed he is gay, and since then has occasionally talked of re-entering politics.
Huffington's ex-wife, columnist Arianna Huffington, is herself the subject of a movement by San Francisco Bay area activists to get her to run for governor.
Nestande said Arianna Huffington's plans are "irrelevant to anything we'll do." The divorced couple live within blocks of each other in Los Angeles' Brentwood neighborhood, he said.
Deukmejian, California's Republican governor from 1983-1991, was being promoted in phone calls to reporters by a Los Angeles County supervisor. But Deukmejian himself all but ruled out a run.
"I can't think of any possibility," he said in a telephone interview, adding he is enjoying his retirement.
The state's Democratic officeholders have closed ranks behind Davis and say they will not run, and state Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said the party can now focus on the Republican candidates.
The campaign promises to be short, expensive and fierce.
"You're talking about a total free-for-all, an election where anything can happen, not a lot of time for strategic planning," 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."
The nation's last gubernatorial recall election was in 1921, when North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier was removed from office.