Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver

Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, get a tumultuous welcome from supporters at the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles as he asked for help from both parties in uniting a deeply divided state. (Photo by Kirk McCoy, Los Angeles Times / October 7, 2003)

LOS ANGELES -- In a stunning finale to a tumultuous campaign, angry California voters fired Gov. Gray Davis less than a year into his term and lifted movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor's chair in yesterday's recall election.

Schwarzenegger overcame a stream of last-minute newspaper reports about alleged improper sexual conduct to gain elective office on the first try. Among the keys to his victory were backing from independent voters and stronger-than-expected support from women, exit polling showed.

The one-time body-building champion campaigned as an outsider who would fundamentally change the government of his adopted state.

A Republican married to Democratic royalty -- Kennedy family member Maria Shriver -- he vowed, with action-hero bravado, to "kick [the] butt" of organized labor, Indian gaming interests and big-spending Democratic lawmakers.

Claiming victory at the Century Plaza hotel in west Los Angeles, a favorite haunt of former President Ronald Reagan, the newly elected governor asked for the help of legislators from both parties, including the Democrats who control the rest of state government, in uniting a state deeply divided along partisan lines.

Schwarzenegger, who planned to announce a 30-member transition team at a news conference today, said that the choice the leaders of California must make "is the one that will determine our success: Shall we rebuild our state together or shall we fight among ourselves and fail the people."

To a roar of approval from his supporters, he added, "For the people to win, politics as usual must lose."

The Austrian-born governor-elect said, "I came here with absolutely nothing, and California has given me absolutely everything. And today California has given me the greatest gift of all. You have given me your trust by voting for me."

Schwarzenegger, dressed in a coat and tie, rather than the more casual, open-necked attire he favored during the campaign, was introduced by Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, where he had announced his candidacy.

Beaming, Schwarzenegger raised his wife's hand in a victory salute. Referring to her fierce defense of him in the closing days of the campaign, he said, "I know how many votes I got today because of you."

Joining them onstage were members of his wife's Maryland family, including her parents, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, who has Alzeimer's disease.

Davis, a Democrat, became only the second governor in 82 years to be dumped in a recall election. The first was an obscure North Dakota officeholder in 1921.

Graceful concession

In a graceful concession speech, Davis pledged cooperation with the incoming Schwarzengger administration.

"We've had a lot of good [election] nights over the last 20 years, but tonight the people did decide it is time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment," Davis told supporters at a downtown Los Angeles hotel.

Davis, who remained outwardly upbeat while his wife, Sharon, wiped away tears, called on "everyone in this state to put the chaos and the division of the recall behind us and do what's right for the great state of California."

And when supporters began chanting for a recall of the new governor, Davis shook his head in apparent disparagement of such a move.

Close scrutiny

Politicians in the state will be closely watching to see whether Schwarzenegger's vote total exceeds the number of votes against the recall. Counting the estimated 9 million or 10 million votes could take days, or weeks, officials said.