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Recall heard 'round the country?

With signatures to spare, California strides into political history - and havoc.

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American partici-patory democracy is headed for one of its most compelling and controversial tests in decades, courtesy of California.

Under a century-old voter reform law, the first successful recall election of any modern US governor appears on target for this fall or next spring. With 1.6 million voter signatures turned in Monday to the secretary of state - roughly twice what's required to put Gov. Gray Davis to a special vote - Californians will likely get their chance to toss out the silver-coifed Demo-crat with the lowest approval rating of any governor in state history.

If he is removed, the implications for California and the nation could be profound. While some Republicans here believe a new governor would benefit the state, many independent analysts say the move could start a spiral of political instability.

For one thing, a replacement could win with a lean fraction of the vote - say, 15 percent - raising questions of whether the individual has a mandate to govern. And the move could spur retribution recalls, with campaigns to oust a Republican governor.

Nationwide, the drive could well embolden similar recall efforts. Seventeen other states allow politicians to be removed from office and, as the term-limits movement showed, anger about legislators runs deep.

Yet many experts caution that the recall of Davis - successful or failed - may not spread inexorably in the mode of Prop 13. In most of the states that permit recalls, activists must gather far more signatures to get them on the ballot than in California: Only one, Montana, requires fewer. Moreover, signature drives and initiative campaigns are deeply ingrained in politics here, making the process natural in a way that it might not be anywhere else.

Whatever happens, the episode will be one of America's most-watched populist maneuvers ever, and California's large population and political importance fuel the fascination.

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