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Schwarzenegger Gains Momentum in California Governor Race - 2003-10-01

California Governor Gray Davis is fighting to keep his job, less than a week before a recall election that could remove him from office. The embattled governor faces a challenger whose popularity seems to be building.

The latest poll by the Los Angeles Times newspaper shows that 56 percent of likely voters want the governor out of office. A simple majority of "yes" votes on the recall is enough to remove him.

If Mr. Davis is ousted, the candidate with the most votes will replace him, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is the clear frontrunner.

In the poll released Wednesday, the former bodybuilder and movie star had 40 percent support. Thirty-two percent of the voters supported a Democratic Party alternative, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante. The survey shows that many voters are willing to overlook the actor's political inexperience, with twice as many approving his leadership skills compared with Governor Davis.

Always trading off his celebrity, Mr. Schwarzenegger peppers his speeches with movie references, as he did Wednesday, when he promised to turn around California's troubled finances. “This year's budget alone, there are more special effects than in Terminator 3, Lord of the Rings and Matrix combined,” he said.

Governor Gray Davis is getting help from prominent Democrats who are coming to California to campaign for him. The latest to come was retired general and presidential hopeful Wesley Clark, who appeared with the governor Wednesday. The beleaguered state official is also getting help from a one-time critic, former candidate Arianna Huffington, who withdrew from the race Tuesday. The liberal columnist was running as an independent, but she says the Democratic governor would be better for the state than the Republican actor who hopes to replace him.

Analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California says Mr. Davis and his rival are trying to shape voter perceptions, and for now, at least, Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be doing that. “What is driving this change in public opinion is all about the debate between change and the status quo,” she said. “Gray Davis is the status quo. Voters perceive Arnold Schwarzenegger as the candidate of change.”

Governor Davis is trying to change that assessment before October 7, when California voters will go to the polls.