Calif. voters appear likely to elect Schwarzenegger

Despite negative reports, actor has 10-point lead over Bustamante

October 05, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES - With the election only 48 hours away, Arnold Schwarzenegger's front-running California gubernatorial campaign is trying to roll through a barrage of news reports that he groped and sexually harassed women and was once an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

The negative charges, which are dominating round-the-clock news coverage in the final days of the recall contest, gave at least a glimmer of optimism to supporters of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who suddenly hoped that he might slip the noose that appeared to be tightening around his neck.

Unless Schwarzenegger's popularity slips significantly, California voters are likely to recall the unpopular governor and elect the Austrian-born movie star in his stead.

But the unrelenting stream of bad news threatened to make the election closer than expected.

"It's hard to imagine that the enormous amount of [negative coverage] isn't going to have some impact" on Schwarzenegger, said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant who is not involved in the recall campaign. "But Davis' problem is still with those Democrats, mostly downscale voters, [members of] union households and Latinos," who either want Davis removed from office or care so little about him they won't vote.

After the state's largest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, ran an article Thursday in which six women accused the actor of groping them in separate incidents during the past 30 years, Schwarzenegger strategists considered answering the charges with a new campaign ad. But after overnight polling showed the actor's support was holding firm, they decided against it, said Mike Murphy, the campaign's media consultant.

That could turn out to be a mistake if the stream of unfavorable news coverage causes voters to abandon Schwarzenegger - something his advisers insisted wasn't happening, even as they scrambled to intensify their damage-control efforts. For logistical reasons, the earliest that Schwarzenegger could air a new ad would be tomorrow.

Republicans maintain, and some Democrats agree, that the momentum Schwarzenegger built up during the past three weeks will be enough to carry him through an extended period of unfavorable publicity, one that would be enough to sink the chances of a novice candidate who was not an international celebrity. Also potentially working in his favor is that more than 1.5 million Californians cast absentee ballots before the allegations surfaced. While Democrats contend that many of those opposed to the recall sent their ballots in early, absentee voting typically favors Republicans in this state.

The governor, trying to rally supporters in the San Francisco area, where opposition to the recall is strongest, said yesterday that if "the news events of the last couple days have fanned any doubt" in voters' minds, they should "come home" and "vote no on the recall."

Campaigning at Davis' side, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular Democrat, said the allegations of improper behavior by Schwarzenegger "should cause us all to think: `Do we really want this man as governor of our state?'"

Davis pollster Paul Maslin said support for the recall dropped sharply and Schwarzenegger's unfavorable rating went up in the campaign's internal polling Friday night, after voters digested the initial news reports. Yet Maslin acknowledged that the trend would have to continue for Davis to save his job. Other Democratic polling shows the recall succeeding, in one case by a margin of almost 10 percentage points.

1 in 6 voters undecided

A statewide survey by the independent Field organization, taken just before the allegations surfaced last week, found that almost one in six likely voters was undecided about which candidate to support. But just one voter in 25 hadn't made up his mind about the recall, according to the poll, suggesting that opposition to Davis had solidified.

In the survey, which found that only about 40 percent of likely voters wanted Davis to keep his job, Schwarzenegger led the race to replace him, with 36 percent. Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, whose candidacy has lost support in the past month, was next, with 26 percent. Republican Tom McClintock trailed with 16 percent.

Yesterday, Schwarzenegger stuck to his planned four-day bus tour of the state. The campaign dispatched his wife, Maria Shriver, on Friday to deliver a strong defense of his character and qualifications to be governor. The NBC newswoman, on a leave of absence from her job, denounced what she called the "gutter politics" and "gutter journalism" of the past few days.

Yesterday, she campaigned at Schwarzenegger's side for the first time in the bus tour, which ends today in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger faced yet another round of allegations, as three more women told the Los Angeles Times in an article published yesterday that the actor had touched them inappropriately in separate incidents during the 1980s.

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