LOS ANGELES - Actor-turned-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger has gotten off to an uneven start in his bid to become California's leading man, raising fresh doubts about his chances and about Republican prospects for winning the governor's office.
Schwarzenegger quickly became the heavy favorite when he joined the recall contest this month, and he could still wind up on top. But with just over five weeks left in the campaign, the latest polls show him in a tough fight to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
"Like a lot of new candidates, he's finding his sea legs. I don't think he's totally found them yet," said Ken Khachigian, a Republican campaign veteran.
Schwarzenegger's advisers say start-up problems were inevitable, a result of his candidacy going from "zero to 1,000 [mph] in nothing flat," as one of them put it. But they also concede that Schwarzenegger has provided rival campaigns with new ammunition.
Schwarzenegger struggled late last week to explain a sexually explicit 1977 interview with Oui, a defunct men's magazine, in which he boasted about participating in group sex at a gym and admitted using marijuana and hashish. The incident gave California TV stations an excuse to air a film clip from the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, which shows Schwarzenegger smoking a joint.
Asked about the article on a Sacramento radio talk show Wednesday, Schwarzenegger said, "I never lived my life to be a politician. I never lived my life to be the governor of California. Obviously, I've made statements that were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous and all those things because that's the way I always was."
The next day, however, when reporters pressed him on the subject, he said, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
Some independent analysts brushed off the revelations as old news, pointing out that a Davis strategist had circulated allegations of womanizing by Schwarzenegger two years ago, which the actor denied. But the embarrassing details of his youthful indiscretions - he was a 29-year-old bodybuilding champion at the time - came as Schwarzenegger was launching an intensive effort to woo conservative Republican voters.
A close contest
Schwarzenegger finds himself in an unusual, two-sided contest to replace the Democratic governor. In what has become, in effect, a Republican primary inside the larger election, he is competing against Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, the leading conservative in the race, and former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, a Republican moderate running as an independent. In the most recent polling, by the Los Angeles Times, Schwarzenegger was the choice of 22 percent of the voters, while McClintock and Ueberroth together drew 19 percent. (An additional 6 percent supported Republican Bill Simon Jr., who has withdrawn from the race).
On the other side is Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who has the advantage of being the only prominent Democratic candidate on the ballot. Because California has 1.3 million more Democratic than Republican voters, a split among Republicans could make it impossible for Schwarzenegger - or any other Republican - to win. (The governor appears only on the first part of the ballot, in which voters are asked whether he should be removed from office; by law, he cannot be a candidate on the second half of the ballot, in which voters choose a replacement who will become governor if Davis is ousted.)
Bustamante led Schwarzenegger by 13 percentage points in the Times poll, published last weekend. But other surveys have shown Schwarzenegger leading. Private polling for one of the Democratic candidates shows the actor slightly ahead, though the survey was conducted before news of the Oui interview surfaced. Polling also shows that California voters would favor removing the unpopular Davis from office.
Steve Kinney, a Republican pollster who works for Ueberroth, said the reports of Schwarzenegger's sexual exploits would hurt him with female voters and could serve to solidify opposition to his candidacy among social conservatives.
If that happens, it might further reduce the possibility that McClintock would leave the race, something Schwarzenegger has called for but which other Republicans see as unlikely. A Schwarzenegger campaign official insisted that Schwarzenegger could win even if other well-known Republicans don't pull out. "But it makes it much more difficult," he acknowledged.
Schwarzenegger is attempting to appeal to Republican conservatives on economic issues, playing on their widespread disgust with the Democratic-dominated state government in Sacramento, which, he says, "has overspent, overtaxed and over-regulated" California's economy. But his message to fiscal conservatives became muddled when billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a Schwarzenegger adviser, was quoted as saying that property taxes in the state were too low.