Arnold Schwarzenegger has lobbed a grenade into the political circus tent of California Gov. Gray Davis's recall election.
Within hours of the Austrian-born movie star's surprise announcement that he will run for governor, the shaky Democratic unity behind Governor Davis had shattered, dramatically cutting his chances of survival. Davis's own lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, announced his candidacy late Wednesday, and other big-name California Democrats may follow suit.
"It's the nightmare scenario: The presence of Democrats on the replacement ballot makes it safe to vote for the recall," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "More than one Democrat means it's more likely Schwarzenegger wins."
The Terminator brings muscle to the table: Besides near-universal name recognition and a personal fortune he says he'll tap, he is considered a moderate in a state where conservatives haven't fared well. While his minimal political experience and celebrity may be a negative to older voters, they may be a plus for the voters who are now likely to be drawn to the recall election on Oct. 7.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger will bring out a whole echelon of people who don't vote but who go to movies," says Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst. "Because of his movie background and larger-than-life persona, he will suck the oxygen away from the other Republican candidates, and Democrats as well - because when you listen to him, he sounds like one."
Like a past California actor-governor, Ronald Reagan, Schwarzenegger seems undaunted by the real-life role of leading the nation's most populous state and the world's fifth-largest economy.
"At the same time he had been pumping up sales in his 'Terminator' movie, he was pumping up interest in his candidacy and has peaked major interest right at the moment of his opponent's greatest weakness," says Alan Heslop, former director of the Rose Institute of Government.
Outwardly, Democrats are relishing the thought of taking on Schwarzenegger because they can easily make fun of his Hollywood past, lack of experience, and affluent lifestyle. But the entry of more Democrats into the race can only be bad for the party. Besides the lieutenant governor, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi may jump in. Other announcements are expected before the Saturday deadline.
"There are things we like about taking on Schwarzenegger ... which is that now we can sit back and let the tabloids take over," says Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser for the California Democratic Party. "With someone like him in the race, the tabloids are in a feeding frenzy and the rules are different. In fact, there are no rules."
When Schwarzenegger contemplated running for governor last year, Davis operatives circulated a profile in Premiere Magazine that accused the actor of womanizing and reminded readers that he had smoked marijuana in his 1977 bodybuilding film, "Pumping Iron." But Schwarzenegger is trying to get out in front of such accusations. "I know they're going to throw everything at me, that I have no experience, that I'm a womanizer and terrible guy," he said. "You all know that Gray Davis knows how to run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but he doesn't know how to run a state."
Schwarzenegger has instantly become the front runner. Before he announced, polls showed him as the leading Republican challenger in a field without fellow moderate Richard Riordan, a former mayor of Los Angeles.
"It would be very rash indeed to dismiss him as just a muscle-bound celebrity," says Mr. Heslop. "I rather expect him to not only dominate the field but to win."
Schwarzenegger says he wants to make the state more attractive to business, because business brings both people and tax revenue that could solve the state's fiscal problems. He vows to clean up the state capital from the influence of special interests, often delivering messages in cinematic and body-building soundbites.
So far, the actor has only dabbled on the edge of politics. Last year, he headed a citizen's initiative that will provide $550 million annually for preschool and after-school activities for kids. It won him exposure as an activist and someone who could understand the finer points of policy.
His stances on abortion (favoring the right) and gay adoption (pro) also make him palatable to GOP moderates as well as Democrats. "If people who don't follow politics were just to listen to this guy, they would think he is a Democrat," says Mr. Quinn. "That bodes very well in this state, which has been leaning more Democratic in recent years."
But such stances and comments also make more conservative Republicans bristle. "This might send a few more moderate Republicans out, but it invites in conservative Republicans who see Schwarzenegger as a Democrat in Republican clothing," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.
Schwarzenegger has several characteristics that could both help and hinder. His heavy Austrian accent, and frequent references to his immigrant background are a plus in melting-pot California. "It is more bad news to Democrats that Arnold will likely do extremely well among Latinos," says Quinn. "Here is a guy who talks funny and that will endear them to thousands who feel their own parents and grandparents talk funny."
Some analysts say the actor's lack of experience in politics makes him unpredictable as a candidate. How thick is his skin? Can he say the right things under pressure? Others disagree. "It's perfectly feasible and reasonable that someone of Arnold's background and experience could be a successful governor with no experience," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
• Staff writers Mark Sappenfield and Linda Feldmann contributed.