Even if he decides not to run, the "Terminator" of Hollywood may still be a key "determinator" in the recall election of Gray Davis, California's Democratic Governor.
Although the muscleman actor continues to hold his cards close to his Mr. Olympia-sized chest, reports now indicate that Mr. Schwarzenegger, after weeks of coyly courting a run, is leaning against entering the race.
The speculation is further scrambling a race that has already thrown the Golden State into a storm of political chaos. Without Schwarzenegger on the ballot, Republicans could be left with a large and fractious field, in which no single candidate clearly stands out or is able to unify the party. On the other hand, it could clear the path for former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan - a moderate Republican whose poll numbers have been consistently higher than Schwarzenegger's.
For now, GOP leaders are trying to shift attention away from their cast of players and onto the current governor.
"The permutations of who could be players in this are endless, so we are cautioning voters not to get caught up in that, but rather first to make sure Davis is ousted," says Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party.
Despite numbers showing that 21 percent of voters favor Mr. Riordan compared to 15 percent who like Schwarzenegger, Riordan has said he will not run if the actor is in the race.
But if "Kindergarten Cop" doesn't enter, the race gets more complicated. Without Schwarzenegger as a candidate, polls show Riordan winning by an even bigger margin. Twenty-five percent of those polled chose him, compared to 16 percent who said they would vote for second place finisher Bill Simon. Other candidates include State Sen. Tom McClintock, who grabbed 8 percent, Congressman Darrell Issa, 5 percent, and Green Party Candidate Peter Miguel Camejo, 9 percent.
The names of Jack Kemp and Arianna Huffington have also been floated, but they are currently considered either no-gos or candidates who would not win more than 5 percent of the vote. Ms. Huffington may run as an independent.
One of the most compelling unknowns in the Schwarzenegger in/out decision is the type of voters each scenario would draw. A race that includes the actor will make it harder for Davis, says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist. That's because voters perceive Schwarzenegger as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, making it more difficult for Davis to paint the election as a conservative coup, his current strategy.
"The level of media and public attention that will be in this with an Arnold S. candidacy leaves much less room for Davis to get his antirecall message out to voters," says Mr. Schnur.
The other big variable for the moment, say analysts, is whether any Democrats will enter the race.
"There is a growing concern among conservative Republicans that Democrats will be strengthened in this if, at the end of the day, Davis survives, or if a stronger Democrat enters the race," says Alan Heslop, former director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.
There's a fear, Mr. Heslop says, that Democrats will enter a strong candidate at the last minute, "allowing Democratic voters just one alternative to a handful of Republicans who split the vote."
The Republican solution, say observers, is for the GOP to unify. But that seems unlikely now, and even less probable if Schwarzenegger decides to opt out of the race, and keep his focus on the silver screen.
"Ideally, we would get all the [Republican] candidates in a room and ask, 'What is best for California,' " says a leading party official. "But honestly, that is not going to happen. You have a lot of egos out there who think they are the best thing for the state."
Because the GOP does not hold a single high office in the state, and is a minority in both houses of the legislature, they are without a key, high-office-holding leader who can help unify or even coordinate policy.
In the absence of that, say analysts, paid political consultants are running the recall-election show, each tied to the interests of their paying-client candidates.
"The compelling observation about the Republican Party in California at present is that it is in the hands of political consultants who are most concerned about winning the day for their particular candidates," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "There is no sense of unified message or strategy."
For its part, the California Republican Party says it is encouraging candidates not to file formal papers of candidacy until it is clear which Democrats - if any beyond Davis - are running.
The strategy is simple. More Democrats in the race signal a vote that could be divided on that side, so that more Republicans might be encouraged to run as well, without fear of losing to a single Democrat. If no other Democrats run, there is more pressure for Republicans to coalesce around a single candidate.
That seems unlikely because there has long been a divide between conservative and liberal wings of the party here.