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Denham recall effort nears ballot with thousands of signatures

The countdown to a showdown keeps tick-tocking.

The signatures to place a recall of state Sen. Jeff Denham on the ballot are nearly finished being verified. An official committee to oust the local representative has been formed.

Denham's opponents are closing in on the halfway mark to send the matter to voters, and the results may be clear in a week. A third of the 61,598 signatures checked so far reveal that recall backers have 42 percent of the number needed.

Since February, the Secretary of State's Office has been releasing daily counts of the signatures verified by the five counties in District 12 represented by Denham, R-Merced. The deadline to report the totals is April 1.

In the meantime, Denham's camp is preparing for a battle to keep the Republican in office. The state senator is raising money, hiring workers and ready to launch a mid-term campaign.

"We're getting ready to kick some butt," Denham's Sacramento adviser Tim Clark said Thursday. "We are not going to take anything for granted."

The recall, which started out quietly with "Dump Denham!" signs posted around Merced and other cities, has been spearheaded by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who was upset that Denham refused to vote for the 2007-08 budget.

It's since grown to become a big-money effort, with the "We Deserve Better. Yes on the Recall of Jeff Denham" committee forming two weeks ago in anticipation that the recall will go to voters.

Kevin Spillane, a Denham spokesman hired specifically for the recall, suspects Perata and other Democrats may be funneling millions into the campaign.

Spillane said there's been an outpouring of support in the last few months. He believes that voters will view the recall campaign as dirty politics.

"This is about a Sacramento politician trying to reverse the will of the people by manipulating the recall process," Spillane said.

The recall campaign has been linked to Perata, and the committee is based out of Perata adviser Sandi Polka's office in Sacramento.

While the fate of the recall campaign isn't yet determined, Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas has said he may run for Denham's seat.

Salinas, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, served in the Assembly between 2000 and 2006.

Attorney George "Wiley" Nickel of Los Banos, unsuccessfully challenged Denham in 2006 and was said to be a possible contender.

Nickel said he's ruled out any plans to run again against Denham, noting that other good candidates may be going for the seat.

California Democratic Party campaign adviser Bob Mulholland declined to elaborate on whom the party may back as a replacement or how they'll convince voters to oust Denham, re-elected by a landslide.

"(He) will be in a bunker trying to defend himself on things he can't defend himself on," Mulholland vowed.

The Republican Party's cuts in education will be highlighted, as well as Denham's refusal to vote for the budget. "The sooner he is gone the better off our kids will be," he said.

So far, Madera and San Benito counties have finished their tally and officially reported to the Secretary of State's Office.

They project 3,228 of the 5,042 signatures are valid. Each county is randomly sampling at least 500 of the signatures to see how many are valid. The ratio is used to calculate a full tally.

Merced County Auditor-Controller Stephen Jones said about 11,000 signatures are believed to be valid; the results were recently sent to the state.

The five counties need to have a combined sample that projects more than 34,193 signatures being valid. The three counties finished put the total at 14,228.

Another 40,415 signatures are still being counted by election officials in Monterey and Stanislaus counties.

An official with Monterey County said they may be reporting today or Monday. Stanislaus County Clerk-Recorder Lee Lundrigan said that her office should be done sampling the 28,586 signatures fairly soon.

She wouldn't guess when, but added, "We are moving ahead briskly."

The clock is running.

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

The tally so far

MADERA COUNTY

2,025 signatures turned in

1,203 projected to be valid

MERCED COUNTY

16,141 signatures turned in

11,000 projected to be valid

MONTEREY COUNTY

11,829 signatures turned in

SAN BENITO COUNTY

3,017 signatures turned in

2,025 projected to be valid

STANISLAUS COUNTY

28,586 signatures turned in

SIGNATURES NEEDED

34,193

Source: Secretary of State, Merced County Elections Office

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