A Republican-led campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis has collected close to half the signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot, the secretary of state announced June 24.

The recall accuses Davis of misleading the public about the size of the state’s budget deficit. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) is largely funding the recall effort. He has contributed $1.15 million so far and is the only declared candidate to replace Davis. In early June, the Issa-led campaign hired Santa Maria political consultants Richard Cochrane and Michael Long of the Tartan Group to collect signatures along the Central Coast.

If recall organizers complete the signature drive by mid-July, it would place the recall on the ballot this fall. If recall organizers cannot collect 897,158 valid signatures by July 16, the drive can continue until Sept. 2 to put the recall on the March 2004 ballot – during the presidential primary elections. That outcome is undesirable to recall organizers because a hotly contested Democratic primary in a predominantly Democratic state is likely to mean that a greater proportion of registered Democrats than registered Republicans will be at the polls.

Recall organizers have to collect far more than 900,000 signatures, however.

Not everyone who signs petitions is a registered voter, Cochrane said, and he estimated that he will only be able to verify about 72 percent of signatures against voter rolls. The signatures collected by the recall effort will also have to be certified as valid by the secretary of state’s office, which will compare a sample of the collected signatures to the original signatures on voter registration cards.

To be on the safe side, the recall effort will have to collect 346,000 extra signatures for a total of about 1.4 million. So far it has collected 376,008 signatures, 357,418 of which were collected between May 16 and June 16.

Cochrane said he believed the recall campaign can gather the signatures it needs before the July deadline and that if it does, Davis will be ousted from office.

“If it happens in November and if I were going to bet you a beer right now, I’d take the beer and he’s gone. He’s in real trouble,” Cochrane said. “No one will ever accuse of him of being charismatic.”

As the California Legislature has been unable to agree on how to resolve the state’s $38 billion deficit, Davis’ approval ratings have plummeted to 21 percent, according to a survey of 2,003 Californians released in June by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan organization. The institute says that is the lowest number on record for any California governor and that about half the respondents said they would vote to remove Davis from office.

Other than Issa, possible Republican candidates to replace Davis are businessman Bill Simon and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Simon lost to Davis by 5 percent of the vote in last fall’s election, but Cochrane said e-mails he has seen from Simon’s staff indicate he’s “seriously considering” running again. Schwarzenegger said he would not discuss running for office until after he is through publicizing his summer action movie, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” in which he portrays a benevolent and heavily armed killer robot.

Leading California Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides, have all announced that they would not run against Davis on a recall ballot.

At a ceremony in San Francisco on June 21 with Davis, Feinstein said the recall was unjustified and that it should not be applied to a governor who was re-elected “just six months ago” and not at a time when the state is facing a huge budget deficit.

“The recall is really there for gross moral turpitude, corruption or some extraneous terrible circumstance in which you have to remove somebody from office,” Feinstein said.

Cochrane said public loathing is a legitimate reason for a governor to be recalled.

“It’s our constitutional right to petition our government for redress,” Cochrane said. “Thank God we’re in the United States of America and not in Uganda, where we’d all be up against the wall right now getting shot.”

Cochrane said he expects the Tartan Group’s 30 signature collectors will gather 30,000 to 50,000 names across the Central Coast. He said the group’s signature collectors would likely also work more populated areas such as Los Angeles. The Tartan Group pays signature collectors $1 per verified signature. Recall organizers pay the Tartan Group $1.30 per verified signature. Cochrane said the Tartan Group spends about 10 cents to verify each signature.

Along with the recall petition, the Tartan Group is also circulating a petition in favor of splitting Santa Barbara County in two and another in favor of an initiative sponsored by UC Regent Ward Connerly. Connerly’s initiative would make it illegal for the state to record the race of citizens in most instances, including enrollment statistics for public schools.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.