LOS ANGELES -- In a stunning finale to a tumultuous campaign, angry California voters fired Gov. Gray Davis less than a year into his term and lifted movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor's chair in yesterday's recall election.
Schwarzenegger overcame a stream of last-minute newspaper reports about alleged improper sexual conduct to gain elective office on the first try. Among the keys to his victory were backing from independent voters and stronger-than-expected support from women, exit polling showed.
The one-time body-building champion campaigned as an outsider who would fundamentally change the government of his adopted state.
A Republican married to Democratic royalty -- Kennedy family member Maria Shriver -- he vowed, with action-hero bravado, to "kick [the] butt" of organized labor, Indian gaming interests and big-spending Democratic lawmakers.
Claiming victory at the Century Plaza hotel in west Los Angeles, a favorite haunt of former President Ronald Reagan, the newly elected governor asked for the help of legislators from both parties, including the Democrats who control the rest of state government, in uniting a state deeply divided along partisan lines.
Schwarzenegger, who planned to announce a 30-member transition team at a news conference today, said that the choice the leaders of California must make "is the one that will determine our success: Shall we rebuild our state together or shall we fight among ourselves and fail the people."
To a roar of approval from his supporters, he added, "For the people to win, politics as usual must lose."
The Austrian-born governor-elect said, "I came here with absolutely nothing, and California has given me absolutely everything. And today California has given me the greatest gift of all. You have given me your trust by voting for me."
Schwarzenegger, dressed in a coat and tie, rather than the more casual, open-necked attire he favored during the campaign, was introduced by Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, where he had announced his candidacy.
Beaming, Schwarzenegger raised his wife's hand in a victory salute. Referring to her fierce defense of him in the closing days of the campaign, he said, "I know how many votes I got today because of you."
Joining them onstage were members of his wife's Maryland family, including her parents, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, and Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, who has Alzeimer's disease.
Davis, a Democrat, became only the second governor in 82 years to be dumped in a recall election. The first was an obscure North Dakota officeholder in 1921.
In a graceful concession speech, Davis pledged cooperation with the incoming Schwarzengger administration.
"We've had a lot of good [election] nights over the last 20 years, but tonight the people did decide it is time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment," Davis told supporters at a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
Davis, who remained outwardly upbeat while his wife, Sharon, wiped away tears, called on "everyone in this state to put the chaos and the division of the recall behind us and do what's right for the great state of California."
And when supporters began chanting for a recall of the new governor, Davis shook his head in apparent disparagement of such a move.
Politicians in the state will be closely watching to see whether Schwarzenegger's vote total exceeds the number of votes against the recall. Counting the estimated 9 million or 10 million votes could take days, or weeks, officials said.
If Schwarzenegger drew more votes in becoming governor than Davis received in losing his job, it would strengthen the legitimacy of his election. If not, it could intensify demands for retaliation from Democrats.
Earlier in the day, speaking outside a polling place not far from his home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger said it was "cool" to be able to vote for himself. He had been attacked in the governor's TV ads for, among other things, not voting in 13 of the past 21 elections.
Surrounded by dozens of reporters from around the world and scores of cameras -- 70, by one estimate -- the actor thanked journalists "for following the campaign and, you know, always showing great shots and good pictures and getting the issues out."
His triumph recalled that of another figure from the entertainment world, Reagan, who was elected California governor in 1966. However, at the time, Reagan was a faded star, while Schwarzenegger's most recent film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is among the top-grossing productions ever.
And while Reagan spent decades honing his political speeches before he ran, Schwarzenegger had relatively little experience when he became a candidate two months ago.
Loser keeps his job
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat on the ballot, was running about 10 percentage points behind Schwarzenegger, exit polls show. Speaking to supporters in Sacramento, he claimed victory as one of the leaders in the successful fight against Proposition 54, a ballot initiative that would have prevented the state from collecting information based on race.
He later conceded the governor's race, but he will remain as lieutenant governor.
Bustamante lavished praise on the state's Indian tribes, who have become the largest political donors in California and were the main source of funding for his campaign. Schwarzenegger attacked the tribes as failing to contribute a fair share of their casino profits to the state, and Bustamante's support from the tribes was seen as a drag on his candidacy by politicians here.
According to exit polling, Bustamante also failed in his effort to win an overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote, which appeared to be unusually heavy. He won a bare majority of 52 percent in his bid to become the first Latino elected governor of California, while Schwarzenegger captured nearly three in 10 Hispanic votes.
The new governor will take over as soon as the election results are certified, a process that could take until mid-November.
He began laying plans for his administration in recent weeks, but he will confront a state legislature dominated by Democrats and a budget gap estimated at $8 billion or more.
Californians remain deeply divided about the state's future and Schwarzenegger himself. He will enter office with a relatively high negative rating from the public, exit polling showed. A total of 49 percent of voters said they regarded Schwarzenegger favorably, while 45 percent held an unfavorable view.
Almost lost in the Hollywood tale of a 58-year-old actor's rise to power in the nation's richest and most populous state was the unprecedented fall of Davis.
The man who won re-election to a second term less than a year ago now becomes the first California governor, and only the second governor in U.S. history, to be recalled.
Cast as a power grab
Davis, whose personal unpopularity fueled the drive to dump him, had sought to cast the election as an illegitimate power grab by Republicans, who lost the past four statewide elections. But he was unable to hold the support of Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans by a significant margin.
A statewide survey of voters as they left their polling places yesterday found that, by a margin of almost three-to-one, Californians disapprove of Davis' performance as governor.
Even though the state's economy is not significantly worse than the nation's as a whole -- there are signs of recovery here -- only 17 percent of voters rated the state's economy as excellent or good, while 83 percent rated it not so good or poor, according to the exit poll.
In the end, voter anger over what the public views as California's downward slide -- deepened last summer by prolonged stalemate at the Capitol over a $38 billion state budget shortfall -- overwhelmed Davis' efforts to frighten voters away from Schwarzenegger.
Slow to react
The governor and his strategists, slow to recognize the threat to his remaining three years in office, had framed the election as a head-to-head choice between himself and the actor.
Recently, Davis predicted that Schwarzenegger would become governor if the recall succeeded, essentially dismissing Bustamante's prospects.
Asked yesterday whether he would support a retaliatory ballot drive to recall Schwarzenegger, as some Democrats are threatening, the governor declined to answer. Even if such an initiative is launched, it seems unlikely that Davis will be a candidate again.
Exit polling showed that one in four Democratic voters, including many of those who reluctantly supported his re-election last fall, voted to recall him. And in spite of Davis's efforts to portray the recall as undemocratic, voters split evenly over whether the election had been worth it or a waste of money.
Schwarzenegger's campaign to become the leader of a state with an economy larger than all but about a half-dozen countries' turned the recall into a round-the-clock obsession for this state's notoriously apolitical news media and its often tuned-out electorate.
His presence on the ballot also generated what was almost certainly a record turnout for a non-presidential election in the state. As many as 10 million votes were cast, which was an increase of almost 30 percent over November's election, when Davis narrowly won his second term.
In excess of 2.2 million Californians cast absentee ballots, many of which had already been turned in before the allegations of womanizing surfaced. Those votes, and others, won't be completely counted for days.
Schwarzenegger spent the final days of his first campaign on the defensive, after the Los Angeles Times published allegations of sexual misconduct by 15 women who said he had groped them in separate incidents over the past three decades.
His wife, on leave from her job with NBC News, stuck close by her husband's side after that. Shriver told voters repeatedly about their 17-year marriage and praised his "great, great courage" for making the race.
Schwarzenegger has been vague about how he would deal with the state's budget gap. He said he would reverse Davis' decision to triple a car tax that provides $4 billion for local governments in the state, though there are questions about whether he can unilaterally do that.
Despite conflicting statements on whether he would agree to raise taxes, Schwarzenegger has promised more spending for education. He said he would pay for it by capping state spending -- roughly three-fourths of which goes for schools -- and by ferreting out "billions" in waste from the current budget.
A total of 135 candidates were on the ballot, including those who dropped out of the campaign, a group that included liberal gadfly Arianna Huffington; last year's Republican gubernatorial nominee, Bill Simon; and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Adding to the circus atmosphere surrounding the contest, the ballot also included former child actor Gary Coleman, porn publisher Larry Flynt and adult-film actress Mary Carey.
Schwarzenegger set the tone for his unconventional campaign with a surprise announcement of his candidacy on the Tonight Show in early August.
He gained the support of most of the state's Republican establishment, even though his liberal social views on issues such as abortion and gay rights are considerably to the left of the party's conservative base.
His main Republican challenger, conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock, withstood heavy pressure from the party to quit the campaign, but his underfunded effort did not draw enough support in the end to cost Schwarzenegger a chance to win.
The transfer of power could be delayed by court action, even though repeated legal challenges failed to postpone the election.
Schwarzenegger was the star attraction in the campaign from the outset. But he faltered during the first half of the race, when polling showed Bustamante in the lead.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was among those who were surprised that Schwarzenegger didn't take off. The voters "were more sophisticated than I gave them credit for. They wanted to take his measure," said Riordan, who expects to be named education secretary in a Schwarzenegger Cabinet.
Schwarzenegger's relatively gaffe-free performance in his only debate -- a Sept. 24 forum in which the candidates got the questions in advance -- was widely credited as the turning point in the race.
Sold via TV
But Schwarzenegger aides and others, including some Democrats, credited other factors. They cited his ability to master issues well enough to discuss them credibly on television, the superior quality of his TV ad campaign and his limited exposure to the traditional news media.
Schwarzenegger chose to sell himself on conservative talk radio and on entertainment programs, including Oprah Winfrey's and Howard Stern's shows, in much the same way that he has marketed his movies.
Mike Murphy, a senior Schwarzenegger adviser, said it wasn't until the final three or four weeks of the campaign that he concluded his candidate had what it took to win.
On Sept. 12, watching him handle questions from a hand-picked audience at a town-hall style event in San Diego, Murphy said he finally realized, "He's up to this."
'Speaking for himself'
Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of Los Angeles said Schwarzenegger was the only major candidate in the race "really speaking for himself" in his ads "in anything that approximated a conversational way. I think he came across as a pretty attractive guy in the ads."
Carrick, who was not involved in the recall contest, said focus-group interviews with California voters confirmed that Schwarzenegger's winning image as a screen celebrity has carried over into the campaign.
"People just think he's decent and honest and knows what he's talking about," he said.
State Republican chairman Duf Sundheim said it was hardly surprising that Schwarzenegger's ads were effective. "He's an actor. He's supposed to do ads well," Sundheim said a few days prior to the election.
But he also agreed that, initially, voters "needed to get comfortable with Arnold. They are comfortable with him now."
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