Five days before the election he hopes will make him California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a catalogue of new testimony yesterday accusing him of groping and humiliating women, using vulgar sexual language, and pestering them with requests for sex even after they turned him down flat.
The allegations, made by six women and spanning a quarter of a century, from the Hollywood star's body-building days up to 2000, were given prominent coverage on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper that opposes the extraordinary push to recall California's incumbent governor, Gray Davis, and has made little secret of its distaste for Mr Schwarzenegger's candidacy.
Mr Schwarzenegger's campaign team, given ample opportunity to respond, rejected all the accusations, saying they were either the result of misunderstandings or had been invented. Confronted with the actual news report as he set off on a four-day bus tour of the state, Mr Schwarzenegger himself took another tack, admitting he had sometimes "behaved badly" and apologising for any offence he had caused.
The accounts included two allegations of Mr Schwarzenegger, unprompted and uninvited, putting his hand under a woman's shirt and grabbing a breast. In one case - said to have happened in 1980 - a former professional beach volleyball player said the actor kept inviting her back to his flat for sex. After she told him it wasn't going to happen, he allegedly "grabbed and squeezed" her left breast. As tears welled in her eyes, she told him: "If I was a man, I would bust your jaw." He merely laughed, according to her account.
A female crew member on the hit film Terminator 2 told the Times Mr Schwarzenegger had cornered her in a hotel lift at least three times and attempted to pull off the robe she was wearing over a swimsuit.
"The first time, you're like, 'Oh my God! I was groped by Arnold Schwarzenegger!' The second time you're like, 'This is disgusting.' The third time you're like, 'Get the ... away from me'," the woman told the Times, requesting anonymity because, she said, she feared retribution from the film industry if she made her name public.
Another woman who worked on Terminator 2 said Mr Schwarzenegger called out to her on the set: "Come here, you sexy devil." He then allegedly whispered in her ear: "Have you ever had a man slide his tongue in your [anus]?" The most recent incident was recounted by Anna Richardson, the host of the British television show Big Screen, who interviewed Mr Schwarzenegger at the Dorchester Hotel in London in December 2000 while he was promoting the movie The Sixth Day. She said that as the interview was ending he grabbed her, pulled her on to his knee and said: "Before you go, I want to know if your breasts are real." Ms Richardson, who has told the story before, said nobody else in the room intervened. She replied that her breasts were real. "At that point," she went on, "he circled my left nipple with his finger and he said, 'Yes, they are real'." Then he let her go.
When Ms Richardson first told her story, to Premiere magazine in 2001, it prompted a political firestorm in California and may have been partly responsible for Mr Schwarzenegger's decision not to run against Gray Davis in the regularly scheduled November 2002 election. The Schwarzenegger PR team has since accused her of being the one who came on to the movie star, not the other way around.
It was not immediately clear how damaging the new allegations would be, since the "Governor Groper" tag has been attached to Mr Schwarzenegger since the start of the campaign and does not seem to have been an obstacle as he soars ahead in the opinion polls. The Los Angeles Times story was barely mentioned on morning television news shows, and was certainly not parlayed, Bill Clinton style, into wall-to-wall shock-horror coverage on the cable news outlets. Some analysts suggested the story could even rebound on the LA Times, exposing the paper to accusations that it was trying to orchestrate a late-in-the-day smear campaign to keep Mr Schwarzenegger out of the governor's mansion.
The Times was not the only paper to run negative spin on Mr Schwarzenegger's personality yesterday. The New York Daily News reported an account of a conversation between Mr Schwarzenegger's wife, the television journalist and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, and a rape victim she was interviewing for NBC in 1996. According to the victim, an overtly anti-Schwarzenegger political campaigner called Karen Pomer, Ms Shriver reacted to her rape story by saying: "Karen, I can't believe your boyfriend stayed with you. My husband wouldn't go near me again. He would leave me, because I would be damaged goods."
Ms Pomer's story, apparently backed up by an eye-witness, was immediately denied by the Schwarzenegger campaign, who said Ms Shriver "would never say" such a thing.
Nobody denies that Mr Schwarzenegger has a colourful past - tales of group sex, steroids, marijuana use and more have cropped up in the candidate's own accounts in magazine interviews. Mr Schwarzenegger says he was exaggerating or fabricating the details to help promote body-building.
California conservatives initially expressed distaste at his candidacy, but now seem more seduced by the prospect of a Republican victory next Tuesday than by the personal foibles of their leading candidate.
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