Arnie muscles into early lead in California race

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If politics were a body-building contest - and California's chaotic scramble over the fate of its unpopular governor, Gray Davis, is probably as close as it gets - there's no doubt that Arnold Schwarzenegger would win hands down.

By common consent, the 56-year-old Republican actor's surprise entry into the highly unorthodox race to unseat Governor Davis - announced on Jay Leno's late-night chat show just when he had convinced everyone he was not running - was a masterstroke of political attention-grabbing. And we can probably expect more in the same vein in the two months leading up to the extraordinary recall election on 7 October.

Anyone who has seen Pumping Iron, the documentary on how Mr Schwarzenegger dominated the Mr Universe and Mr Olympia competitions in the 1970s, can reasonably assume that his tactics for assuring victory have not changed: be supremely prepared, charm the pants off everyone and psych out your opponents at every opportunity.

The opponents are certainly well psyched-out. California's two Browns, Mayor Willie of San Francisco and former governor Jerry, looked mesmerised when asked for their reactions by cable news stations. Almost forgetting they are Democrats, both conceded that this man - with his charisma, his celebrity and his instant access to the media - was going to be very hard to beat.

One big question remains unanswered: what does Arnie stand for? For all the excitement over his candidacy, the awkward truth is that nobody really knows.

His campaign promises so far - lower taxes, more spending on schools - do nothing to address California's number one problem: a record-busting $38bn deficit. Asked by one interviewer to "give me some specifics", Arnie pointedly did not. Asked about his own personal income tax statements, he fiddled with his earpiece and pretended not to hear the question.

Mr Schwarzenegger calls himself a moderate Republican, conservative on fiscal issues but open-minded on social issues. What that means in precise terms, though, is anybody's guess. He has hinted he is pro-choice on abortion, but has never actually said so. He claims to be a champion of the environment, but single-handedly persuaded General Motors to produce the Hummer, the civilian equivalent of the military Humvee, the widest, most gas-guzzling vehicle on American roads.

For all his talk of wanting to help pensioners and schoolchildren, Mr Schwarzenegger also said last week that he wanted to make California a "business-friendly environment", usually understood as shorthand for lower taxes, laxer regulation on issues such as the environment and, if necessary, cuts in social programmes.

So who is the real Arnold Schwarzenegger? According to his own rhetoric, he is too rich to be bought off by special interests. But there's a fine distinction between being beholden to no one and having nothing and nobody to represent. As one observer put it, he'll have to be careful people don't assume a thick accent and thick muscles imply a thick head.

In Pumping Iron, a 28-year-old Schwarzenegger says he has been having fantasies about "very powerful people, like dictators, who are remembered for hundreds of years, or Jesus, remembered for thousands". Clearly, this is a man with a raging ego. Might this at some point become a political liability?

Democrat hopes are coalescing around Cruz Bustamante, the current Lieutenant Governor, who broke party unity to throw his hat into the ring just hours after Mr Schwarzenegger. For now, both Republicans and Democrats are presenting a crowded field, raising all sorts of questions about split votes and the chances of independents such as the left-wing darling, the society columnist Arianna Huffington.