A leading man tries to wow women off-screen

Arnold Schwarzenegger the movie machine was built to be a man among men - a perfect image of flexing flesh wrapped in the Austrian rumble of witty one-liners. Monday, the recall candidate will make his plea that Arnold Schwarzenegger the political machine is built of different parts.

His platform suggests it: He favors abortion rights and gun control and is a strong supporter of education - all stands supported by a majority of women. Monday's appearance on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," however, is a tacit acknowledgment that his campaign has so far failed to capture the hearts of women voters.

In an election with more variables than a high school math test, every demographic group could prove decisive. Yet women, in many ways, represent Schwarzenegger's greatest opportunity and greatest risk.

Already as many as 13 percentage points behind front-runner Cruz Bustamante among women voters, Schwarzenegger could lose his support if past allegations of harassment and womanizing gain traction. But conversations with women voters along the store-lined promenades of this middle-class Bay Area suburb suggest that Schwarzenegger may have hope - and that a clear display of his political skills would be far more persuasive than any apology for past mistakes or appearances with his wife, Maria Shriver.

How Schwarzenegger and his moderate social policies fare Oct. 7 could prove pivotal for the state's Republicans. In a party long guided by what are seen as more male views of issues from abortion to welfare, some say Schwarzenegger is the party's best chance to move the Republican party doctrine more in line with California's history as a leader on women's rights.

"If you were the Republican Party and you were thinking of running a woman-friendly candidate, he is in some ways a fairly ideal candidate," says Susan Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics in New Brunswick, N.J.

The case that he is most clearly not ideal stems from rumors that he has fondled women on movie sets and made comments to belittle them. Though no charges have been filed, Dr. Carroll suggests that the gap between Schwarzenegger and Mr. Bustamante must have something to do with the allegations. The gender gap usually favors Democrats by 6 to 9 percentage points, she adds.

Certainly, the actor has drawn criticism on these points. Women's group CodePink, for one, protested outside the state Republican convention this weekend. "It's this overt and very public history of making terrible statements against women ... and this pattern of harassment," says member Karen Pomer.

Her group, in fact, started a letter-writing campaign to implore Ms. Winfrey to confront the candidate about these issues on Monday's program. Such a confession, though, would not be likely to sway Linda Frandsen. Not because she would think it disingenuous, but rather because she doesn't care.

Strolling through the boutiques of Walnut Creek, sipping on a cool drink amid the gathering heat of northern California's late summer, she lays out what seems to be a motto for her peers here: "All this slinging mud about him doesn't surprise me, it happens with every politician," she says. "I think he's a fine person, but I don't think he has what it takes."

It is at once good news and bad news for Schwarzenegger. This is the sort of place where Schwarzenegger needs to make inroads among women to win Oct. 7. Walnut Creek is a kingdom of strollers and Pottery Barn Kids, where voters are open to fiscal conservatism mixed with liberal social policies. Yet women here challenge him to step beyond stock speeches to prove he is a leader.

Karen Bowie seems as if she is simply waiting to be won over. As she hovers over the parking meter rummaging for change in her purse, the white-haired Ms. Bowie enthuses: "The only person with half-decent ideas is Arnold Schwarzenegger."

But she quickly makes it clear that she will be voting for nobody on the second half of the recall ballot. "[Schwarzenegger] hasn't said enough to let me know what feel he has for running a government."

Such caution fits well with women's traditional voting tendencies. "Historically, women have been less likely to favor change," says Carroll. It's one reason that, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, 54 percent of women oppose the recall while 57 percent of men favor it, she says.

One need only chat to Sally Christopher to begin to understand that gap. As a registered Republican, the sandy-haired shopper says she has no affection for Gov. Gray Davis. But she'll vote "no" on the recall, because "he's done nothing wrong." On the second question, she's drawn to Schwarzenegger because of his take on the issues, adding, "I haven't voted Republican in years because I'm pro-choice."

Acknowledging she'll probably vote for Schwarzenegger, she confides, "I'm concerned about his lack of experience."

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