Race to control California tightens as Arnie dismisses new groping claims

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The Independent US

Already likened to "hand-to-hand combat", California's gubernatorial recall election turned bare-knuckled and bloody over the weekend when leading Democrats suggested Arnold Schwarzenegger should face criminal charges for sexual battery and was clearly unfit for public office.

With more women coming forward every day to accuse the Hollywood actor of groping and intimidating them on movie sets and in production offices, and controversy still swirling over an old interview transcript that had him praising Adolf Hitler, Mr Schwarzenegger retorted that he was the victim of "puke politics" and dismissed the latest charges against him as nonsense.

Like a muscular Greek hero suddenly beset by the Furies, however, the former body-building champion and would-be saviour of the California Republican Party struggled to maintain his triumphant winner's pose even as his convoy of campaign buses pulled into Sacramento, the state capital.

Thousands of supporters and hecklers gathered in the city for his climactic final rally ahead of tomorrow's vote.

Protestors carried signs saying "Arnold release the Hitler tapes" and "Arnold, are your daughters pieces of meat?"

A flurry of new opinion polls ­ some of them public, some conducted privately by the competing campaigns ­ showed that support for the effort to recall Gray Davis, the unpopular incumbent Governor, has narrowed sharply since the groping allegations surfaced in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday. Some of the Democrats' campaign polls indicate the recall, which seemed unstoppable just a few days ago, may now be a dead heat.

Governor Davis has seized this new-found momentum, surrounding himself with prominent women Democrats and characterising the groping allegations as grounds for a criminal investigation.

Mr Davis told supporters at a rally in Los Angeles yesterday that the former body-builder should deal with all the allegations "in detail, not through partial explanations, evasive answers or partial denials". He said: "The question gets down to this: are 15 women and their families lying, or is Mr Schwarzenegger not telling the truth?"

Although such talk exposed Mr Davis to accusations of wantonly negative campaigning ­ the Schwarzenegger campaign wasted no time in denouncing what it called his "desperation ... in the final hours of his political career" ­ he was far from alone in condemning the man opponents are calling "Governor Groper".

"If [Schwarzenegger] was a black man, he'd be in jail. If he was brown, he'd be in jail. If he was a poor white, he'd be in jail," said Peter Camejo, the Green Party's candidate. "What does it say about our society that a rich white person could do the type of things that he's alleged to have done, which he has asked to be pardoned for?" Mr Schwarzenegger's conservative rival, Tom McClintock, also chimed in, saying the charges, if true, were "absolutely reprehensible" and "disgraceful".

In follow-up stories on Saturday and yesterday, the LA Times cited testimony from seven new women who accused Mr Schwarzenegger of fingering their breasts, trying to pull their clothes off and, in one case, following them into a toilet to demand sex. Some of these alleged incidents occurred as recently as three years ago. A total of 15 women have come forward to date.

Having initially apologised for what he termed occasional bad behaviour, Mr Schwarzenegger was much less accommodating over the weekend. "The last accusations that I read are absolutely untrue ­ absolutely wrong," he said. He blamed them on a "frantic" Gray Davis resorting to dirty campaigning, and on a newspaper ­ the Los Angeles Times ­ misusing its news pages to try to knock him out of the governor's race.

His efforts to deflect the blame on to others was itself subject to withering criticism, however. A group of Democratic California congresswomen said his response "further reflects a batterer's mentality of continuing to deny responsibility and blame the victim". With the focus on the groping, the Hitler allegation has receded somewhat, partly because it is much murkier and partly for strategic reasons. Mr Schwarzenegger already suffers from a gender gap in his support, and Democratic strategists believe women could be the key to beating the recall.

Mr Schwarzenegger is seeing no waning in his hard-core supporters' enthusiasm, however, and they have turned out in large numbers at every step of his California Comeback bus tour. By contrast, when Mr Davis spoke in the blue-collar city of Long Beach on Friday, just 35 people showed up.