Arnie on course for victory despite women's protests

The packing crates have been ordered. The shredding machines are on stand-by. The governor of California, Gray Davis, may believe he can stop Arnold Schwarzenegger taking his job as voters go to the polls today. But his staff are taking no chances and the mood in his office is said to be grim realism.

At the end of an extraordinary election campaign in which almost nothing has turned out as expected, all sides now agree - at least privately - that victory for Mr Schwarzenegger remains the most likely outcome, despite stories in the past few days about his alleged propensity for groping women on movie sets and in production offices, and despite an interview transcript in which he apparently expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler.

Although tracking polls have shown the first part of the election - a straight up-and-down vote on whether to recall Mr Davis - tightening in the wake of the negative publicity, the consensus is that the unpopular incumbent, a Democrat, has too big a hill to climb. Given his tepid support even among hard-core Democrats, he will not be nearly as effective in getting out the vote as the Republican Mr Schwarzenegger.

The Hollywood muscle man, running largely on his celebrity and he-man image while remaining vague on policy details, is the undisputed front-runner in the second part of the election to pick Mr Davis's would-be successor.

Mr Schwarzenegger wound up his campaign with a tightly choreographed rally in Sacramento on Sunday night, holding up a broom to symbolise his much-touted pledge to "clean house". It was the culmination of a four-day bus tour across the state, nicknamed the California Comeback Express.

Television cameras captured crowds of adoring supporters holding up "Join Arnold" and "Dump Davis" signs, supporting Mr Schwarzenegger's contention that the last-minute momentum was with him. But according to reporters a tight security operation made sure that 200 counter-demonstrators chanting "Hey Arnold, what do you say, how many women did you grope today?" were kept well away from the cameras.

The anti-Schwarzenegger lobby was out in force again yesterday, staging a protest outside the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles to mark Yom Kippur and raise questions about Mr Schwarzenegger's views on Hitler. Mr Schwarzenegger, who had an antagonistic relationship with his late father, a former Nazi stormtrooper, has vehemently denied harbouring Nazi sympathies. He and his wife have donated about $1m to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

All indications are that the anti-Schwarzenegger insurgency has come too late to alter the outcome of the election. About two million absentee ballots - as much as 20 per cent of the total - have already been cast and came too early to take the groping and Hitler allegations into account. Pollsters believe up to 56 per cent of these are votes in favour of a recall, meaning that Governor Davis needs well over 50 per cent of today's votes to reverse the trend. Even the most optimistic Democratic tracking polls do not see that happening.

Even if Mr Schwarzenegger wins he may still be in deep trouble, with opponents demanding a deeper investigation into the groping charges and saying he should resign if they are substantiated. The issue could overshadow the already massive headache of reining in California's runaway budget deficit and even prompt calls for a recall of the recall.

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