Can 'outsider' allure withstand allegations?

Schwarzenegger rides California's populist tide for change as the campaign finale gets personal.

His cross-state "California Comeback Express" tour is over. The polls are in, and he's ahead. But troubling accusations linger, as women come forward alleging misconduct by him.

Ending with a splash as big as his announcement on the Jay Leno Show two months ago that he'd run for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger's mad dash into the riptide of populist political reform now raises

the question: Has his campaign paved the way into politics, or terminated his foray?

Win or not - as Tuesday's vote will tell - analysts say the main appeal of Mr. Schwarz-enegger's whirlwind candidacy has been the perception (and critics emphasize, "perception") that for all his Hollywood money and privilege, he's one of "the people," ready to do what current state leaders will not, could not, or have not: govern for all.

Whether that attraction is diminished by the election's 11th-hour rash of allegations that Schwarz-enegger engaged in sexual misconduct, only the vote will tell. And that final assessment - one factor in a host of intangibles - may be hard to tease out in voters' choice. In campaign venues across the state, interviews suggest the choice has less to do with policy issues than with gut feelings on whether candidates can reform a government in gridlock.

"The main attraction of a celebrity candidacy ... has been that he is seen as an outsider with the potential of ending the disgust Californians have with the way things have been running," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. She and others note that much of that perception has turned out to be more rhetoric than reality: Schwarzenegger has surrounded himself with political sophisticates and taken money from special interests like all the others.

"He has sold the idea that he is someone with core principles who will stand up for all citizens where the current government leaders have not," says Garrett. Noting a recent Field Poll that gives Schwarzenegger a 10-point lead over Cruz Bustamante (and shows 57 percent of respondents in favor of the recall), Garrett says: "Apparently, to a degree higher than the other candidates, the voters have bought that idea."

That analysis is born out in interviews - though a Knight Ridder poll released Saturday showed the lead narrowing to 7 percent.

"I just like him," says Gino Roncelli, a plastics-business owner standing in a rain of confetti and blaring rock lyrics ("We're not gonna take it anymore") after a rally here Friday. "He's a breath of fresh air."

Now that the campaign is nearly over, say experts, that expectation of Schwarzenegger as an untainted outsider who can clean up the system will be his greatest strength - and liability.

The reason: Every policy choice he would make as governor involves details that have not been forthcoming on how he'd achieve his goals. Such specificity increasingly tends to alienate voters. So far, partly because of the recall's compactness and partly because of Schwarzenegger's apparent strategy, the candidate has drawn voters from the center of the political spectrum, by the sheer force of his persona and by mostly general statements of vision and principle.

After holding press and pundits at bay for most of the campaign, Schwarzen-egger released a 10-point platform Friday, based on the centrist ideas that polls show most Californians support. It includes: "restructure state debt," "streamline education bureaucracy," "audit state budget," and "reform workers' compensation."

"The specificity and vagueness of these 10 points shows the political savvy of Arnold Schwarz-enegger at the final moment of his candidacy," says Allan Hoffenblum, a campaign consultant. "It's a perfect list for the average California voter who wants reasons to vote for you and doesn't want to find any scary reasons why he shouldn't."

As GOP operatives tried to spotlight the 10-point list as a 100-day plan, Democrats tried to capitalize on allegations that Schwarzenegger has engaged in sexual misconduct and expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler. The comments (claims that he admired Hitler "for being such a good public speaker and for his way of getting to the people," though not for what he did), allegedly made to a friend in 1975, appeared in the press last week.

In various venues, Davis spoke out against his rival: "If true, his personal behavior was disturbing and unacceptable and his professed admiration for Adolf Hitler unconscionable."

The Schwarzenegger campaign minimizes the allegations. Schwarzenegger told reporters, "I have always despised everything Hitler stands for" and brought prominent women, such as state Congresswoman Mary Bono and actress Tia Carrere, to campaign stops to shore up support. "I had a kissing scene with him," said Ms. Carrere, "and he was never anything but a gentleman."

His wife, Maria Shriver, told a Conservative Women's Leadership Association luncheon that the allegations didn't hurt because "I know the man I am married to."

But analysts say the furor over Hitler and sexual harassment may come so late that effects will be minimal - and only heighten the perception that such allegations are "dirty tricks" put out by opposing campaigns. It all highlights an even bigger question hovering over the Schwarzenegger campaign and the California recall: Have voters had enough time to scrutinize the candidates?

"Usually, voters can look at a candidate's prior record in elective office to see how he might behave," says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "With this experiment in two-month, direct democracy, there is no way to know until he actually makes it into office."

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