It has taken 32 tries since 1936, with other high-profile targets like Ronald Reagan and Edmund Brown dodging the bullet, for Californians to get a recall of a governor on the ballot. \nNow that they have done it, ousting Governor Gray Davis in a humiliating rejection less than a year after his re-election, Californians are deeply conflicted over whether the recall represents democracy at its best or worst. \nIn an act of rebellion, voters in the state where one of every seven Americans live thrust into the governorship an actor and former bodybuilder with no political experience even at a time when most residents say they are deeply worried about the state's direction. \nThey made recall an accepted political mechanism, potentially opening the door to repeated efforts to unseat governors. Indeed, Democrats are vowing to use the recall in turn against Republicans. And it all came in a state with a political system already hobbled by initiatives and term limits. \nFor Arnold Schwarzenegger to succeed in such a politically polarized climate, he will have to appeal to the political center, hoping to transcend the endemic Democratic-Republican acrimony. \nTroubling for California and its next governor, though, is a series of Field Polls over the past three months that shows a deepening partisan schism, with most Democrats viewing the recall as a bad thing and most Republicans regarding it as a good one. \n"I think there's been a growth of partisanship in the last 20 years," California's Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said on Tuesday night on CNN, "unlike anything I've ever seen, and an inability of people to come together across the aisle, and that needs to change." \nAsked if he agreed, former governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, said, "Sadly, I do. And it prohibits the kind of honest debate that really produces the solutions that can work." \nNot all Californians were so grim. Some viewed themselves as 21st century populists, deploying yet another weapon in the growing arsenal of voter anger against politics as usual. But others look back at it all and see their state as the laughingstock of the country, and would prefer that the entire episode had been avoided. \nIndeed, the low-road finish to the recall election campaign, with charges of dirty tricks flying between the camps of Davis and Schwarzenegger, threatened only to make matters worse. \nThe survey of voters at polling places showed supporters and opponents of the recall largely divided along ideological lines. Three-fifths of those who said they voted to recall Davis were Republicans and almost half described themselves as conservative. Two-thirds of the recall opponents were Democrats and more than half defined themselves as liberal. \nThe increasingly bitter standoff reflects a broader problem with the political environment in California that an election to remove a governor does not address, and some suggest might only sour things further. \nMuch as the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton demonstrated in Washington, the recall has heightened the viciousness of the Democratic-Republican dialogue in California. When combined with the quirkiness of the state's long tradition of direct democracy in the form of initiatives, that makes California a confounding place to govern. \nEven a look at the California map shows how thoroughly split the state is along a so-called red-blue spine. Most coastal counties vote Democratic, while most inland counties vote Republican. The well-known north-south cultural divide has been superseded by an east-west division. \n"What is happening now in California is what has been happening in Washington," said Mel Levine, a former congressman and state assemblyman from Los Angeles. "The California Legislature and the US Congress find it much more difficult to achieve common ground and the type of compromise that is essential for the legislative process." \nLevine, who left Congress a decade ago, is one of those who believe that the recall election injects partisan poison in a state that has already ingested a nearly lethal dose of it. \nFactors that include redistricting, term limits, closed primaries and strong party discipline have turned deliberations in the Legislature into an endless series of party clashes. Both sides tend to attract legislators from the extreme wings of their parties, making compromise difficult and governing from the center nearly impossible. \n"There is no constituency for a centrist," said Garry South, a longtime aide to Davis. "He tried to do it from the middle, threw his body in front of the train, lost support among constituency groups, and when they came to get him, there was nobody to speak up for him. It is a very vivid lesson." \nIt was a particularly hard lesson for Davis, whose political career has spanned three decades and who was elected to statewide office five times. No matter how hard he tried to humanize himself in the final weeks of the campaign -- even promising to meet with voters twice a month if not recalled -- Californians would not give him another chance. \nDavis is not the first elected official to become entangled in California's bizarre electoral web. The state's voters have a long history of taking matters into their own hands. Between 1978 and 2000, more than 600 initiative petitions were circulated, a quarter of which concerned how the state raises and spends money -- essentially cutting legislators out of the budget business. \nThis so-called ballot box budgeting continues unchecked. Schwarzenegger successfully led an initiative last year for after-school financing. Another measure on Tuesday's ballot, Proposition 53, would set aside up to 3 percent of general revenues for infrastructure spending. \nIn 117 recall attempts since 1913, four state officials have been removed. In 1986, there was even a move to recall the state Supreme Court's chief justice, Rose Bird, and several of her liberal allies on the court. Though it failed, Bird later lost a confirmation election. \n"A lot of us feel the political system here in California is a dysfunctional system," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles. "Despite the 135 candidates and the certain circus nature of it, something serious is happening here." \nThe partisan poison of the recall permeated its very formation. Democrats complained that the movement would never have gone beyond the wishful thinking of a small group of Republican consultants and antitax crusaders if a millionaire Republican, Representative Darrell Issa of San Diego, had not provided a huge infusion to hire professional signature gatherers. \nRepresentative Zoe Lofgren, who heads the California congressional delegation, said over the weekend that some Democrats already planned to mimic Issa's formula. \n"I know people who have money who say that is what they would do," Lofgren said. "I don't think there is any way to stop it."
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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