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Denham recall backers say they have the signatures

The recall team trying to boot state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, from office announced Friday that they've filed more than enough signatures to force an election.

The Dump Denham campaign shipped two boxes of petitions Friday morning to Merced County and more to the other four counties that the state senator represents, days before the Wednesday deadline.

Denham was unavailable for comment Friday.

Two Democrats, meanwhile, say they're interested in running against the state senator if the recall qualifies for the ballot.

One, attorney George "Wiley" Nickel of Los Banos, unsuccessfully challenged Denham in 2006. Denham won nearly 60 percent of the vote.

The other, Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, served in the Assembly between 2000 and 2006.

Each of the five elections offices have 30 working days to verify that the signatures are from registered voters in their county and report the results to Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

The campaign declared that it collected about 50,000 signatures from residents in Merced, Stanislaus, Madera, Monterey and San Benito counties. At least 31,084 need to be valid to put a recall before voters.

If it qualifies, it would be up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to decide when it would be on a ballot. It's unclear if it could make the June election.

Nickel said he supports the recall, arguing that Denham shifted his focus to running for statewide office.

Denham has filed paperwork in the California Secretary of State's office signaling his intent to run for lieutenant governor in 2010, when his Senate term expires.

Salinas didn't say whether he favored the recall, but said he would consider running depending on when it goes before voters.

"It's a process that's available for the voters, and they're using it just like the Republicans against the Democrats," he said, referring to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis.

The Dump Denham drive's announcement is a precursor of what will likely be a bitter and costly fight for Denham's seat, a prize that may cost more than a $1 million total.

Each side has spent somewhere around $200,000 so far, leaving much more in the bank, and their public relations machines have been ratcheting up the blame game.

Denham has labeled the effort partisan politics at its worst. He said he's been attacked for not voting for last year's budget, which he wanted trimmed by about $700 million.

Publicly and privately, education groups and Schwarzenegger pressured Denham to cast the sole remaining vote needed to end the 52-day standoff. In the end, though, he never wavered.

Denham recently noted that the budget he refused to approve has left the state with more than a $14 billion deficit.

"I wish I was wrong and we didn't have a deficit," Denham told the Sun-Star in mid-December.

The drive has polarized the Capitol, he said, adding that it has been a distraction during a crucial time.

Friends of Jeff Denham Against the Recall has raised $461,000 and spent almost $200,000 so far. Major bills are from advertisements, lawyers, campaign strategists and mailers.

Denham's critics accuse him of breaking promises and morphing into a far-right Republican, not the moderate he's portrayed himself.

They're also eyeing the state senator's seat because he was elected in a district where there's a majority of registered Democrats. Replacing him with a less conservative leader would bolster the party's power in the Senate.

As of September, 45 percent of the 320,493 district voters are registered Democrat, and 37 percent are registered Republican.

"Voters of California have overwhelmingly had it with the Republicans," California Democratic Party campaign adviser Bob Mulholland said.

However, Denham was reelected in 2006, receiving 58 percent of the votes, a landslide against Nickel.

Within the last two weeks, the recall campaign sent press releases blasting Denham for accepting salary increases that he had publicly denounced and also for voting against a Senate bill that could reduce the number of home foreclosures -- a problem that's hit the Central Valley hard.

Tim Clark, one of Denham's advisers, said there's no local voter discontent with Denham and blamed Don Perata, Senate president pro tem, for trying to swing an ax at the state senator as revenge. "This whole recall is simply about a budget vote," he explained. "It embarrassed Perata, and this is his own spite."

The Voter Education and Registration Fund, which Perata's adviser runs, has spent at least $41,490 on the recall, according to public records.

The state's Democratic Party has spent nearly $230,000 on the recall since August 2007, when "Dump Denham" signs began popping up around District 12.

The effort soon expanded into a full-scale recall campaign, complete with a Web site and press releases.

A recent one cited a Sacramento Bee article that exposed how Denham has quietly accepted pay raises while publicly denying others within the last two years, bringing his salary to $113,098 a year, which is still less than the $116,208 that other senators take home.

After that, recall proponents blasted Denham for voting against a Perata-backed bill to slow the foreclosure crisis in the state.

The legislation would have forced banks to give more notice before mortgage rates would increase on home loans. It failed by one vote.

Besides publicly trading barbs about the recall, Denham's lawyers have asked for an investigation by Attorney General Jerry Brown's office because they claim to have video footage of signature gatherers admitting that they are from out of Denham's district -- a violation of the elections code. His attorneys have also asked county district attorneys to investigate the allegations as well.

A 1980 Secretary of State opinion declared that signatures on a petition should not be invalidated because the person who gathered them isn't a registered voter.

As evidence of wrongdoing, Denham's anti-recall team posted conversations with signature gatherers to YouTube.com.

Clark, a Denham adviser, said they'll make sure every signature is valid and will consider all options to halt the recall, which is meant to be homegrown.

"It's to prevent exactly what Perata is doing -- keeping a legislative leader from bullying someone," he said. "He's clearly flaunting the law instead of obeying it."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

Modesto Bee reporter Adam Ashton contributed to this report.

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