After a year of playing hard to get, Arnie finally agrees to stump up

Arnold Schwarzenegger loves to keep people guessing. He did it when he was weighing whether to run for governor of California last summer, and he's been doing it again in response to Republican Party entreaties to stump for George Bush.

After playing hard to get for the past year - California is, after all, resolutely anti-Bush - he has at last agreed to make a single appearance with the President in Ohio tomorrow.

Last week, he made headlines by joking that his Democratic wife, Maria Shriver, had withheld sex for two weeks after he endorsed MrBush at the Republican National Convention in New York in August. Not a line to gladden the hearts of religious conservatives.

Then, on Monday, he appeared with one of the most liberal Democrats in the Golden State, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and used the occasion to discuss his support of civil rights for gay couples - another no-go area for the President's Christian base. Asked on that occasion whether he was going to be joining Mr Bush on the campaign trail, he said he hadn't made up his mind yet.

The Terminator turned governor is not known for being shy or indecisive. But he has quickly proved himself a master of the great political chess game. The will-he, won't-he mystery surrounding his dramatic entry into politics last year was a masterful publicity coup. This time around, his carefully plotted indecision appears to have been designed to reassure California voters of his moderate bona fides while at the same time doing his duty to his party.

His appearance in Columbus, the Ohio state capital, will almost certainly heighten his political profile - and help him solidify his claim to being the rising star of the hitherto out-of favour, moderate wing of the Republican Party. Whether it will boost President Bush's chances remains to be seen, however.

The staunchly conservative Bush Republican establishment has reason to feel as ambivalent about Mr Schwarzenegger as he does about them. He is a pro-gay rights, pro-choice governor with a colourful personal mythology of sexual escapades, steroid use and general Hollywood excess. His star power is as much of a turn-off to the party's heartland base as it is a draw to undecided moderates. He may be a potent weapon, but he needs to be used with extreme caution.

His relationship with President Bush has been frosty. At the beginning of the year, he made clear he would go out on a limb for the President if California was given federal funds to help close its yawning budget gap. When the money failed to materialise, he all but snubbed Mr Bush during a fundraising tour of the Golden State in March.

None of that was in evidence, however, as he announced his intention to hit the campaign trail. "We are Republicans and have to support one another," he said. "The whole idea is to go back there to be helpful to President Bush. I want to be a support system for him."

Several Californian political analysts noted yesterday that this is a win-win situation for him. If President Bush wins the election, Mr Schwarzenegger will have done enough to stay in the White House's good graces. And if he loses, Mr Schwarzenegger will be in a prime position both to do business with the new administration and to take a leading role in reshaping the Republican Party of the future.

"He has bought himself some running room with liberals, Democrats, moderates and progressives," Democratic Party consultant Garry South told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Besides, if you were Schwarzenegger and knew Bush was going to crash and burn in your home state, wouldn't you go to another state too?"

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