WASHINGTON - By leaping with full force into the race to remove California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger resolved the mystery of whether he would be a candidate.
Now the question is: Can he win?
Yes, according to major-party strategists and independent analysts in California.
Most said that if California voters decide to dump Gov. Gray Davis in the state's first-ever recall election, Schwarzenegger stands an excellent chance of finishing first in the race to replace him.
"He's not a sure thing, but he's a natural politician, a very intelligent man and a very credible candidate," said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a Democrat and nominal Davis supporter, said that "Democrats are going to have a very difficult time defeating Arnold."
Republicans are closing ranks behind the movie star, while "we are in trouble on the Democratic side with Governor Davis," Brown said on CNN.
Davis said late in the day that California voters would answer the question: Will Schwarzenegger become the next governor?
"The Terminator may be back. He may not be back. The people will make that choice," the governor told reporters.
On a day of fast-moving developments, it was clear that Schwarzenegger's entry had triggered shock waves that rolled through both parties. Among them: Two statewide officials became the first Democrats to break with the governor by announcing they would add their names to the lengthy list of candidates running to replace him.
The decisions by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi further weakened Davis' hold on his office, because keeping credible Democratic choices off the ballot had been central to his strategy for beating the recall.
In another setback for the governor, the state Supreme Court said it would not intervene to stop the Oct. 7 election. Davis had sought to postpone it until the March presidential primary, when more Democrats are likely to vote.
Schwarzenegger announced that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who had been the leading potential candidate in recent polls, would be supporting him.
Riordan issued no immediate public statement, however.
The wealthy Republican who financed the recall drive, Rep. Darrell Issa, tearfully announced that he was pulling out of the governor's race. His decision reduced the number of GOP candidates and improved the odds that a Republican would win.
That Republican could be Schwarzenegger.
While his candidacy has just begun, a number of factors appear to be working in his favor.
Schwarzenegger is a moderate on social issues, particularly abortion rights and gay rights. Moderation on those issues has been a key to the Democrats' success in winning every statewide contest for governor, senator or president in California since 1994.
During that period, the Republican Party's conservative base has consistently produced nominees whose social views were out of step with the state's mainstream.
"I don't think there's a box that's been made yet to put Arnold in. He's a hybrid of Republican and Democratic beliefs, thanks to his upbringing [as a policeman's son in Austria], his Republican philosophy, and his marriage [to Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family]," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Schwarzenegger must flesh out his views on a number of divisive issues, including affirmative action, immigration, late-term abortion and bilingual education.
"He is well-known, but Californians will not invest in a mystery," said Whalen, a veteran of Republican politics.
In addition, Whalen and other analysts said, Schwarzenegger must convince voters that he is up to the job of governing the nation's most populous state, despite never having run for office or held a government job.
"He has about a one-week window to introduce himself. ... He has to show that he understands the state of California," said Whalen, "because charisma will only take you so far."
Through his entertainment career, the determinedly ambitious one-time bodybuilding champion has crafted an image of strength and determination.
Former Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, who had considered running in the recall election, endorsed Schwarzenegger over his own ex-wife, pundit Arianna Huffington.
In a statement, the former congressman called the actor "a charismatic leader" who would be the "uniter" California needs.
Contrasting what he termed his own "great leadership" with the governor's extensive government experience, which he said has left California in worse shape, Schwarzenegger boasted yesterday that "I always reach my goals."
His life story, which will be a central theme in his campaign, has made him particularly popular with ethnic minorities in this immigrant-rich state, polls show.
Schwarzenegger told a crowd of reporters in Los Angeles that he had come to America in 1968 as "an Austrian farm boy" with "no money."
Against great odds - including an unpronounceable name, a thick foreign accent and an "overdeveloped" body - "I became the highest-paid entertainer in the world."
The angry mood in California. With the state suffering a record $38 billion budget deficit that will mean cuts in services and higher fees for car registrations, Californians are "in a pretty foul mood," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field Poll.
"There are different intervals in California history when voters are just fed up with the way things are going and they want to take things into their own hands, and we may be entering that period," DiCamillo said.
By casting himself as an outsider, Schwarzenegger is well-positioned to tap into that resentment.
"Special interests cannot buy me," he said, mentioning his personal wealth and vowing to serve only the interests of "the people."
Last fall, he dipped his toe into state politics by pushing a successful ballot initiative to fund after-school programs. That campaign reinforced his reputation as a supporter of public education, which he lists as a top agenda item in his campaign, along with reinvigorating the state's business climate.
Kam Kuwata, a Democratic strategist, said Schwarzenegger enters the race with "a lot of positives," including the 2002 initiative campaign.
"Should he be underestimated? Absolutely not," Kuwata said.
But, he added, Schwarzenegger will likely be pressed to demonstrate that he has a broad, detailed understanding of the state's problems.
"The initiative campaign was like making an independent movie. Now he's trying to premier a blockbuster," he said.
A unique election. At last count, more than 550 candidates had obtained the necessary papers to add their names to the ballot, which is likely to contain dozens of names.
If voters decide to remove Davis from office (the first question on the ballot), the candidate with the highest number of votes (Davis cannot run to replace himself) becomes governor.
With so many candidates, it could take less than 30 percent of the vote to win.
That's an important figure, as polling has shown that a clear majority of Californians is not inclined to vote for Schwarzenegger.
Also, his support is highest among younger voters, minorities and those who have not attended college - groups that typically are less likely to vote.
"The challenge for Schwarzenegger will be to try to broaden the base of voters who go to the polls. If he can excite them and get them to turn out, then it becomes a competitive challenge," said DiCamillo, the independent pollster.
Republican conservatives might be desperate enough to win that they will look past Schwarzenegger's social moderation for a chance to regain the governorship, said political scientist Pitney.
"They can't envision him as a squish," a conservative put-down for moderates. "That's one term you cannot apply to him."
Schwarzenegger's personal wealth, a valuable weapon in a state where paid advertising is a potent tool, and his celebrity will help him stand out in the long list of candidates.
Even the length of his name will be a factor in helping voters pick his name out.
At the same time, many of the same strategists and analysts pointed to many reasons why Schwarzenegger might not win: He is untested as a candidate and will have to avoid novice mistakes, and voters don't know where he stands on the issues.
Even the fact that he is well-known might not work to his advantage, said Bill Carrick, a strategist who has assisted most of the state's leading Democrats.
"We're just more suspicious of celebrities here and put them to a higher test," he said.
Carrick and others said Schwarzenegger is coming across more like Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler who became governor of Minnesota as an independent candidate, and less like Ronald Reagan, a movie actor who served two terms as governor of California before his election as president.
Unlike Schwarzenegger, Reagan spent decades honing his political views and presenting them to audiences.
Schwarzenegger has to prove "he's not a Hollywood flake," said Pitney, adding that the violence in his films is another potential target for critics. "Reagan made action movies, but they didn't have the same level of violence as the Terminator films."
In addition, Schwarzenegger will have to deal with likely personal attacks, such as the one launched by one of Davis' advisers in 2001, when the actor began to signal his interest in becoming governor.
"I know they're going to throw everything at me and say I have no experience, that I'm a womanizer, that I'm a terrible guy," Schwarzenegger said in announcing his candidacy on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "All these things are going to come my way."