By Ronald Grover You know you're nearing the end of the looniness called California's recall election when Barbra Streisand, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton start leaving prerecorded messages on Golden State voters' answering machines. But none of that tops front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving "personal" messages to drop by and join him - and a few thousand other folks -- at a nearby park for a campaign rally.
As the days before the election tick down to zero, Schwarzenegger is gearing up for the role of a lifetime: governor of California. And in true Terminator fashion, he's strutting ahead as just about everyone else is aiming to blast him to smithereens.
Yes, the polls all show that Schwarzenegger still enjoys a decent margin against the No. 2 candidate, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, even after all the last-minute body blows about boorish behavior toward women and alleged remarks about Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the latest Field Poll, from California's highly respected statewide research outfit, the actor gets support of 36% of those likely to vote on Oct. 7 -- a larger percentage than any of the other 135 candidates on the ballot.
QUICKLY TIGHTENING. That could be enough for Schwarzenegger to get the statehouse. That is, of course, if current occupant Gray Davis is recalled (and the Field Poll says 57% of the voters will punch their card to do just that).
You have to be here, though, because the feeling on the ground is that the race is tightening quickly. Since The Los Angeles Times ran a story on Oct. 2 saying that Schwarzenegger had groped or otherwise mistreated woman over a 25-year period, the question of whether he's fit to run the state is about all anyone is talking about. The Oakland Tribune withdrew its endorsement in response to the piece.
In addition to the six women quoted in the Times story, nine more have now come forward -- making 15 in all. And a TV commercial featuring one of those women has begun airing about every hour on prime time. The ad, sponsored by a liberal political action committee called MoveOn.org, says somberly that "if you're a woman, or your mother is a woman, or your daughter or sister, then you cannot vote for this man." Since everyone's mother, daughter, or sister presumably is a woman, who can vote for Schwarzenegger?
ALL A PLOT? At the same time, he's battling allegations -- far more vague -- that in his younger days he expressed admiration for Hitler. That charge doesn't have the stickiness of the groping allegations, but it adds to the impression that Schwarzenegger is on the defensive -- a bad place for a front-runner to be.
While his defense against the Hitler charges seems more plausible, Schwarzenegger hasn't given much of a denial to the groping charges -- even as he says it's all a plot by Davis and the Times to derail his campaign. "I have behaved badly sometimes" he said in reference to his behavior with women, chalking up at least some of it to "rowdy movie sets" and being "playful." Schwarzenegger did, however, apologize "to those people that I have offended."
In the closing 48 hours of the campaigning, he has layered contrition with a dollop of defiance in his stumping. At the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia with a light rain falling, the muscular action star tried to shift the blame for the charges on Governor Davis' camp. "They try to tear your character down and everything you stand for," Schwarzenegger told a crowd of about 2,000. Always the Terminator, he said he would blast his way through the mess. "I will stay focused. I always stay focused, because the fight continues."
FOLKSY DOINGS. As he focuses for the final push, the governor with the severely coiffed seems to be suddenly recharged. Davis claims his private polls show support slipping for the recall effort. As for Schwarzenegger, Davis is now dangling the notion that perhaps a criminal investigation is warranted into the "assaults" against women. Electing Arnold, Davis said at a stop in Oakland, "would then saddle the state with whole 'nother set of problems."
Meanwhile, Arnold tours by bus, doings such folksy things as wolfing down a protein bar at a burger joint in Merced and posing with female supporters at a meat-packing plant in Clovis. His wife, TV commentator Maria Shriver, is hitting the stump harder than ever to attest to Schwarzenegger's character as a father and husband.
It's folksy, perhaps. But it's also drawing attention away from Schwarzenegger's central message -- the state leadership isn't working, and businesses are fleeing California. Undoubtedly, the movie-star charisma that has carried him this far is wearing thin as the hours tick away.
Even in California, where folks forgive stars everything from bad-hair days to drug overdoses, allegations of assaults against women may cross the line from show business to dirty business. The Schwarzenegger buzz has suddenly turned bad. And that ain't good - for Arnold the candidate or for Arnold the actor. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online