LOS ANGELES - The turbulent California recall contest headed into its closing hours with yet another round of womanizing accusations against Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday and indications that the race had tightened.
Gov. Gray Davis, desperately trying to salvage the final three years of his term, said a new published report, which brought the number of women who said the actor groped them to 15, raised "serious questions about whether [Schwarzenegger] can govern California."
"Mr. Schwarzenegger needs to address these charges in detail," the governor said. "Are all these women and their families lying? Or is Mr. Schwarzenegger not telling the truth?"
Davis spoke to reporters at a ceremony where he signed a major new law that will require employers to provide health insurance to some 1 million California workers who lack coverage.
The front-running Schwarzenegger, after spending much of the weekend angrily fending off reports about his unwanted advances toward women and purported admiration for Adolf Hitler, ignored the two subjects at his main public event yesterday.
Instead, his campaign, which said its internal polling showed the recall succeeding and Schwarzenegger comfortably leading in the race to become governor, is trying to revive the aura of inevitability about his election that began to fade after accusations surfaced last week.
At a raucous rally on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, the Republican brandished a broom and vowed to sweep the Democratic governor from office in tomorrow's election.
"We have gained such unbelievable momentum," he told a crowd of nearly 5,000.
Schwarzenegger predicted that "the special interests are going to go crazy" if he is elected, "because they know I am here to kick some serious butt. ... But let me tell you something, when they start pushing me around, I will push back."
The event ended a four-day bus tour of the state that was more of an endurance contest than a victory lap. Schwarzenegger was joined onstage by the 1980s band Twisted Sister, which performed its hit "We're Not Gonna Take It," the campaign's theme song.
In a sign that Schwarzenegger's strategists believe that he had survived the worst of the fallout from the torrent of negative news coverage, the campaign said it would not air last-minute ads to answer the charges.
Davis' camp, however, brandished a new ad, which will begin airing today, that attempts to capitalize on Schwarzenegger's troubles. In the commercial, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular Democrat, says the recall election "is turning around." Referring to Schwarzenegger, though not by name, the senator says that "serious allegations" have surfaced and advises Californians to "give this serious consideration."
She also never names Davis, who is so deeply despised by most voters that he has never spoken in his ads. Instead, Feinstein calls him "the governor."
Most voter surveys show that Californians are prepared to dump the veteran politician in favor of an outsider from Hollywood with no government experience. But the Davis campaign said its internal surveys show support for the recall dropping and the outcome still in doubt.
A pollster for the governor said internal polls taken over the weekend indicated support for the recall falling below 50 percent for the first time. But the pollster, Ben Tulchin, acknowledged in a conference call with reporters that "there's still a real chance that Arnold is going to be governor."
Meanwhile, the second-place candidate to replace the governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, said he had pulled into a dead heat with Schwarzenegger in his internal polling. At least one other Democratic poll showed Bustamante gaining.
"We have a situation right here, right now, in which 15 women have come forward. This is serial activity," Bustamante said on CNN. "I think we've had one surprise too many. I don't think he's fit to be governor.
The first public poll conducted since the allegations surfaced gave Schwarzenegger an 8 percentage point lead over Bustamante. That statewide survey, published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News, indicated that support for the recall had weakened but that the effort was still likely to succeed.
The poll attributed Schwarzenegger's lead largely to support from nontraditional voters. It said he was drawing support from those who rarely participate in elections, such as the voters who helped elect former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota in 1998. These Schwarzenegger supporters are mostly white, between 18 and 44 years old, with some college education and moderate-to-conservative leanings.
For the fourth day in a row, The Los Angeles Times published a front-page article about Schwarzenegger's alleged mistreatment of women. The newspaper said four new women had come forward to accuse him of improper advances in separate incidents in 1979, the mid-1980s, 1987 and 2000.
Schwarzenegger has issued a blanket apology, saying that he "behaved badly" toward women and that he now recognizes that what he meant as playful acts were offensive to women. However, he has refused to confirm any specific incidents and denied that many of the published allegations are true.
Asked about the accusations by ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings, in an interview broadcast yesterday, the actor said, "It doesn't make any sense to go through details here with you. ... I cannot remember what happened 15 years ago and 20 years ago."
The Times has identified 15 women, 10 by name, who said the actor groped them.
A woman who works in the entertainment industry was quoted yesterday as saying that she decided to come forward after the candidate appeared to dismiss the earlier allegations. She said Schwarzenegger grabbed her in the summer of 2000, when she was at a West Los Angeles sound studio doing post-production work on the movie The Sixth Day. She said he pinned her to his chest and swatted her rear end five or six times. "This is what should happen at your house every morning," the woman said he whispered in her ear.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used because she feared retaliation, told the paper that Schwarzenegger followed her, seized her hands and noted that she did not wear a wedding ring. "By the way, I love it that you're not wearing underwear," she said he told her. The woman said she replied, "I am wearing underwear, you idiot."
"It was playful for him," the woman told the newspaper. "It was not at all playful for me."
Schwarzenegger, who accuses the paper of working with Davis to defeat him, has denounced the news accounts as "puke" politics, a term first used by the state's Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer to describe the governor's negative tactics.
The governor has said he and his campaign have had nothing to do with the news accounts about Schwarzenegger's behavior. The Times has denied working in concert with Davis.
None of the 15 women took legal action against the actor. His campaign said that the allegations of three of the four women in the latest article were untrue.
After his initial apology, Schwarzenegger spent several days counterattacking and dismissing the allegations as a last-minute smear campaign. He told the The San Diego Union-Tribune in an interview Saturday aboard his campaign bus that "the majority of stuff that they're throwing at me is not true. ... And those that I think that did happen in the past, it will be in the past. ... Where I did make mistakes and where maybe I did go overboard sometimes ... I regret that."
But he added that people should know that "this is a different Arnold."
In one sign of the volatile atmosphere surrounding the campaigns' final hours, the Oakland Tribune withdrew its endorsement of Schwarzenegger. "Called a 'sexual harasser' by one female and a 'predator' by others, we can no longer in good conscience recommend him for governor," the paper said.