LOS ANGELES - Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who became a millionaire superstar in Hollywood action movies, announced yesterday that he would run for governor of California, setting the stage for a tumultuous two-month campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Gray Davis.
The Republican actor, best known for playing a killer robot in three Terminator movies, opened his campaign with a raw display of the extraordinary national media platform at his disposal, announcing his candidacy on NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
His move into the race capped a day that set the state's political universe reeling, one that began with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, firmly taking herself out of the race.
Feinstein, in a statement and later interviews, characterized the two-month recall campaign as a carnival that would distract from the serious issues facing the cash-strapped state.
"After thinking a great deal about this recall, its implications for the future and its misguided nature, I have decided that I will not place my name on the ballot," she said.
Even Davis strategists had conceded that the governor would lose the two-part recall election if Feinstein agreed to place her name on the ballot. The recall will first ask voters whether they wish to recall Davis; they will then be asked to vote on a replacement.
Her departure from the race, while denying it the state's most popular and prominent politician, did nothing to stem the seepage on the Democratic side.
As the day wore on, several state officeholders were weighing a jump into the race. Chief among them was Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who as late as Tuesday had insisted he would not be on the ballot.
Richie Ross, Bustamante's political consultant, confirmed that the lieutenant governor is poised to declare his candidacy: "I think he's going to do it."
He said Bustamante has scheduled a news conference for this morning.
Slight family tiff
Also joining the race yesterday was author and newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington, an independent whose ex-husband, former Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, is also considering whether to join the race.
She had said last week that she would stay out if her ex-husband decides to run, a comment that prompted a sort of public spat yesterday between the former spouses.
"Obviously, Arianna has initiated her campaign with a lack of credibility," said Michael Huffington's spokesman, Bruce Nestande, who said the former congressman had not decided whether to run.
Today, Republican U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort, and Peter Camejo, the Green Party gubernatorial nominee last year, plan to file papers to put their names on the ballot.
But the entrance of Schwarzenegger dwarfed all others. It came as a particular surprise not only to the state's political class but to the audience at the Tonight Show, which burst into applause at the news.
Casting himself as a man of the people who would challenge special interests in the state Capitol, Schwarzenegger promised to "clean house" in Sacramento.
"The people are working hard," he told Leno in his trademark Austrian accent.
"The people are paying the taxes, the people are raising the families, but the politicians are not doing their job. The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing."
"Do your job for the people, and do it well; otherwise you are hasta-la-vista, baby," Schwarzenegger said, in what was one of a few recasts of famous lines from his movies.
For two weeks, the actor's advisers have told reporters he was unlikely to run. By playing down expectations, they heightened the drama of what they had effectively transformed into a surprise announcement.
Yet the meticulously choreographed Tonight Show stint, followed by two news conferences at NBC's Burbank studios, stuck closely to the populist campaign platform that Schwarzenegger and his political team have been preparing for months.
It is a platform that his strategists hope will resonate with an electorate angry over California's stalled economy and the state's deep fiscal troubles.
Invokes voters, movie
Schwarzenegger invoked the 1.6 million voters who signed a petition demanding the special gubernatorial recall election now scheduled for Oct. 7. He summed up the message of the petition signers by recalling the slogan of a deranged TV newsman in the 1976 film Network: "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."
While Schwarzenegger advisers describe him as a moderate Republican, his political profile is largely a blank slate on myriad issues confronting California, including smog, freeway congestion, race relations, water supplies and the fiscal crisis.
For her part, Feinstein, who survived a recall attempt as San Francisco mayor in 1983, called the drive to kick Davis out of office "a terrible mistake." Most of the dozens of potential candidates vying to replace him, she said, "have no background or knowledge of the state's enormous portfolio of issues," from public schools to health care and terrorism.
The oddity of the recall - being used for the first time against a statewide officeholder - has spawned a profusion of candidates, including former Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt and billboard pinup Angelyne. Their entrance has enabled the Davis campaign to portray the recall as a circus, a framing that Feinstein echoed yesterday.
One of the crowd
Steve Smith, director of the governor's anti-recall campaign, responded to Schwarzenegger's announcement by depicting the actor as little more than a name in the crowd.
"Today, one more name has been added to the long list of candidates in this recall election," Smith said in a statement.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger now joins a list that includes Darrell Issa, Bill Simon, Tom McClintock, two Huffingtons, Larry Flynt and even Angelyne.
"We expect many more names and far more rumors and we remind all Californians that this has been brought to you by millionaire Darrell Issa and Republicans bent on pushing their harmful agenda on California."
Some California members of Congress who had been urging Feinstein to run said they still would like a well-known Democrat to get on the ballot to ensure that their party does not lose control of the nation's biggest state government.
In Sacramento yesterday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer said Democrats might still need the "safety net" of a "Plan B" candidate in case the governor is recalled.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.