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Sexual accusations lead to an apology by Schwarzenegger
( 2003-10-03 11:11) (Agencies)

Faced with new accusations of sexual misconduct, Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged on Thursday that "wherever there is smoke there is fire" and apologized for having "behaved badly sometimes" toward women.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, who has been surging in the polls in California's recall election, issued the apology here at the beginning of a statewide bus tour. The six-bus tour, with the international media in tow, is part of the actor's final push to replace Gov. Gray Davis.

His statements on Thursday marked the first time during the extraordinary recall campaign that Mr. Schwarzenegger expressed remorse for sexual indiscretions, having previously played down accusations of groping and mistreatment of women as exaggerations, mistruths or provocations.

"Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets," the actor and former bodybuilder said, "and I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful but now I recognize that I have offended people. And to those people that I have offended I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I'm trying to do."

The announcement came in response to a front-page Los Angeles Times article on Thursday about six women who said they were the victims of unwanted sexual advances by Mr. Schwarzenegger when they came into contact with him on movie sets, in studio offices or at a gymnasium, among other places.

Mr. Schwarzenegger's attitude toward women has been an issue since the start of his campaign. But the new accusations, and Mr. Schwarzenegger's reply, set off a maelstrom of protest from his critics, including women's groups, Democrats and Arianna Huffington, who dropped out of the race this week but had repeatedly clashed with Mr. Schwarzenegger during a debate last week.

"I consider his campaign a very expensively produced masquerade," Ms. Huffington, who was running as an independent, said, `the question is will the mask be removed before the election or after. I believe what this story is going to do is really bring to question this big issue of trust and credibility. If his word and image are consistently proven to be false, he doesn't have a leg to stand on."

The Los Angeles Times reported that three of the women said Mr. Schwarzenegger grabbed their breasts. Another said he reached under her skirt. A fifth said he tried to strip off her bikini in a hotel elevator. The sixth said Mr. Schwarzenegger pulled her to his lap and asked if she was experienced in a particular sexual act. The accusations covered a 25-year period, ending in 2000.

Though some of the claims had been published elsewhere, including in an article in Premiere magazine in 2001, the Los Angeles Times account included fresh details and named two of the women.

In apologizing on Thursday, Mr. Schwarzenegger denounced the Los Angeles Times article as "trash politics" and did not admit to any of the specific claims made by the women. "A lot of those that you see in the stories is not true, but at the same time I have to tell you that I always say that wherever there is smoke there is fire," he said. "That is true."

Until now, accusations of sexual misconduct involving Mr. Schwarzenegger have held little sway with voters. But the issue has shadowed the campaign since Day 1. In announcing his candidacy on Aug. 6 on television on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," Mr. Schwarzenegger was the first to raise the subject.

"I know they're going to throw everything at me, and they're going to, you know, say that I have no experience and that I'm a womanizer and that I'm a terrible, terrible guy," Mr. Schwarzenegger said then.

In August, when stories began to surface about an interview he had given in 1977 to Oui magazine, in which he bragged about group sex and talked about the benefits of drugs and sex before bodybuilding competitions, Mr. Schwarzenegger seemed to have been caught off-guard. He changed his explanation over the course of two days.

When first asked about the interview on a talk radio show in Sacramento, Mr. Schwarzenegger chuckled and said he "never lived my life to be a politician."

He added: "Obviously, I've made statements that were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous and all those things, because that's the way I always was." The next day at a news conference, he backtracked. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. "I have no memory of any of the articles I did 20 or 30 years ago." Later, he said he made up the episodes to promote a documentary about himself and to advance his sport.

"There were only a few hundred gymnasiums in America at the time when I came over here," Mr. Schwarzenegger said on "Hardball With Chris Matthews" on MSNBC on Sept. 3. "Now there are hundreds of thousands. So we were very successful with our campaign to promote bodybuilding, to promote fitness, the health industry and all of that."

The decision to apologize was a calculated move by Mr. Schwarzenegger's campaign to prevent the latest claims from derailing the last weekend of the recall race, aides said. Recent polls have shown Mr. Schwarzenegger emerging as the favorite to win the election on Tuesday and picking up support among women.

But even as Mr. Schwarzenegger was apologizing, some of his aides and allies were taking a different tack, denouncing the Los Angeles Times story and questioning the credibility of the women interviewed.

"I think the behavior of the L.A. Times has been unbecoming of a newspaper," Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican from California who bankrolled the recall signature gathering, said in a radio interview from the Schwarzenegger bus convoy. "They have used dozens of reporters to constantly find new and creative ways to be disingenuous about the recall and anyone who stood up for it."

Democrats and women's group seized the issue, holding news conferences and declaring Mr. Schwarzenegger unfit to govern. And as Mr. Schwarzenegger's convoy rolled from San Diego to Costa Mesa to San Bernardino to Los Angeles, protesters stole some of his thunder.

At one stop, Gail Escobar, a waitress in Santa Monica, accused Mr. Schwarzenegger of threatening to rape her 25 years ago. It was impossible to verify the accusation by Ms. Escobar, who was joined by a representative of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which supports Mr. Davis. Nonetheless, the woman was mobbed by reporters.

Mr. Schwarzenegger was not without defenders. Some yelled, "Lesbian!" Still others hollered, "Liar, liar."

Mr. Schwarzenegger tried to stay above the fray, focusing on a hemorrhaging budget, jobs leaving the state and a burdensome car tax.

In one campaign stunt in Costa Mesa, Mr. Schwarzenegger dropped a wrecking ball on an automobile in protest of a 300 percent hike in the vehicle license fee.

With nearly 200 reporters traveling with Mr. Schwarzenegger and two unsanctioned busloads of lesser candidates hounding him, his staff tried to tamp down a story that was being carried live to an audience well beyond California.

"Some of the things in the article are not true," said Todd Harris, a spokesman for Mr. Schwarzenegger. "Some are and he's apologized for that. He's addressed it directly and we're going to move on."

Mr. Harris and other Republicans said they were curious about the timing of the article, criticizing Mr. Davis but stopping short of linking him to it. The Los Angles Times said none of the women had been identified by Mr. Schwarzenegger's campaign rivals, and Davis campaign officials denied any involvement.

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