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ELLEN GOODMAN

Send in the candidates

NOW IS THE TIME, boys and girls, for our back-to-school pop quiz. Which famous American is credited with the following aphorism: "You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time."

1. Abraham Lincoln

2. Phineas T. Barnum

3. Neither of the above

4. Both of the above

This quiz is brought to you with deep affection for the good citizens of California, who are now suffering national ridicule for a governor's recall race that will cost an estimated $66 million to decide who gets the honor of trying to dig the Golden State out of a $38 billion deficit.

The word most commonly used to characterize this political event is "circus." Everyone from Eureka to San Diego, from PBS to HBO, has now officially characterized the campaign as a three-ring or, to be more accurate, a 135-ring circus. One ring per candidate.

You do not have to read to the end to get the right answer to the quiz. It's 4. Both of the above. The foolability quote is attributed to both the Great Emancipator and the impresario. Californians, take heart. This factoid suggests that the metaphoring and morphing of politics and circuses began even before your state was accepted into the union.

I'm not surprised that the recall race has been nicknamed the Cirque du Sacramento. A lot of the state's citizens do seem to regard the election of Gray Davis in 2002 as a commitment lite -- till love do us part. They think of politicians as Ben Affleck figures who should be booted off the screen when they lose their box-office appeal.

But the "circus" cry arises basically from the vast cast of performers. The roster of 135 folks -- if you don't count "Doonesbury's" Zonker -- filled what are loosely called requirements to run for this office: a minimum of 65 signatures and $3,500. They are now running against Davis, himself a dead-on nominee for a makeover role in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" -- "Let's do something with that hair."

The most famous of the contenders is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a sideshow all to himself. He seems to have polarized the population into those who love his six-pack and those who hate his six Hummers. In the past week, the unearthing of the action hero's "youthful indiscretions" -- a gang-bang at 29? -- won him the sleaze title. That's no mean feat in a field that includes Hustler's Larry Flynt and XXX actress Mary Carey.

Then there is the child star, the documentary film maker, the bounty hunter, the front man for a punk rock group, the Edward (not that one) Kennedy, the (gulp) columnist, the murder suspect, and on and on.

Nevertheless . . . I am still not eager to join the list of anticircus barkers. I think there is something to be said for this election.

For one thing, it's mercifully short. Isn't this what we want out of elections? In the era of the eternal presidential campaign, when primary candidates peak and fall before a single vote is cast, the whole governor's race will be over on Oct. 7. As California goes, so goes the nation?

More to the circus point, there are a lot worse problems than having 135 candidates eager to run for office, even if one has a website that reads, "the lunatics have taken over the asylum." There is, for example, the problem of having no candidates running for office.

In 2002, 37 percent of all the state legislative seats in the country went uncontested. This year in California, five Bay Area cities canceled their city council elections for lack of competition. At least, the gubernatorial gaggle can't be accused of candidate apathy. For every clown on the ballot, there's another committed soul stumping to legalize marijuana or get junk food out of the schools or "inspire my grandkids."

Finally, any campaign that gets the California news stations to turn their (air)heads from J. Lo to Sacramento cannot be all bad. Who would have believed that local TV reporters would be trashing Arnold Schwarzenegger for ignoring the real issues? Isn't infotainment better than no info at all?

All in all, I'm inclined to give two cheers to California. I'll even give it a high-five for inspiration. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's humble words: "Remember what Ronald Reagan said, `America is the shining city on the hill.' "

OK, so maybe Ronald Reagan didn't say it first. Maybe John Winthrop first uttered the "city on the hill" thing back in 1630. Still, you really can't fool all of the people all the time.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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