WASHINGTON - By leaping with full force into the race to remove California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger resolved the mystery of whether he would be a candidate.
Now the question is: Can he win?
Yes, according to major-party strategists and independent analysts in California.
Most said that if California voters decide to dump Gov. Gray Davis in the state's first-ever recall election, Schwarzenegger stands an excellent chance of finishing first in the race to replace him.
"He's not a sure thing, but he's a natural politician, a very intelligent man and a very credible candidate," said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a Democrat and nominal Davis supporter, said that "Democrats are going to have a very difficult time defeating Arnold."
Republicans are closing ranks behind the movie star, while "we are in trouble on the Democratic side with Governor Davis," Brown said on CNN.
Davis said late in the day that California voters would answer the question: Will Schwarzenegger become the next governor?
"The Terminator may be back. He may not be back. The people will make that choice," the governor told reporters.
On a day of fast-moving developments, it was clear that Schwarzenegger's entry had triggered shock waves that rolled through both parties. Among them:
Two statewide officials became the first Democrats to break with the governor by announcing they would add their names to the lengthy list of candidates running to replace him.
The decisions by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi further weakened Davis' hold on his office, because keeping credible Democratic choices off the ballot had been central to his strategy for beating the recall.
In another setback for the governor, the state Supreme Court said it would not intervene to stop the Oct. 7 election. Davis had sought to postpone it until the March presidential primary, when more Democrats are likely to vote.
Schwarzenegger announced that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who had been the leading potential candidate in recent polls, would be supporting him.
Riordan issued no immediate public statement, however.
The wealthy Republican who financed the recall drive, Rep. Darrell Issa, tearfully announced that he was pulling out of the governor's race. His decision reduced the number of GOP candidates and improved the odds that a Republican would win.
That Republican could be Schwarzenegger.
While his candidacy has just begun, a number of factors appear to be working in his favor.
Schwarzenegger is a moderate on social issues, particularly abortion rights and gay rights. Moderation on those issues has been a key to the Democrats' success in winning every statewide contest for governor, senator or president in California since 1994.
During that period, the Republican Party's conservative base has consistently produced nominees whose social views were out of step with the state's mainstream.
"I don't think there's a box that's been made yet to put Arnold in. He's a hybrid of Republican and Democratic beliefs, thanks to his upbringing [as a policeman's son in Austria], his Republican philosophy, and his marriage [to Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family]," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Schwarzenegger must flesh out his views on a number of divisive issues, including affirmative action, immigration, late-term abortion and bilingual education.
"He is well-known, but Californians will not invest in a mystery," said Whalen, a veteran of Republican politics.
In addition, Whalen and other analysts said, Schwarzenegger must convince voters that he is up to the job of governing the nation's most populous state, despite never having run for office or held a government job.
"He has about a one-week window to introduce himself. ... He has to show that he understands the state of California," said Whalen, "because charisma will only take you so far."
Through his entertainment career, the determinedly ambitious one-time bodybuilding champion has crafted an image of strength and determination.
Former Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, who had considered running in the recall election, endorsed Schwarzenegger over his own ex-wife, pundit Arianna Huffington.
In a statement, the former congressman called the actor "a charismatic leader" who would be the "uniter" California needs.
Contrasting what he termed his own "great leadership" with the governor's extensive government experience, which he said has left California in worse shape, Schwarzenegger boasted yesterday that "I always reach my goals."
His life story, which will be a central theme in his campaign, has made him particularly popular with ethnic minorities in this immigrant-rich state, polls show.