Contra Costa, Calif.

OF ALL THE ASSIGNMENTS I've drawn over the years, none would seem to be as trifling as the one that has me standing on an airstrip, gulping gnats on a tropical October morning. At Buchanan Airfield in Concord, California, I await the arrival of a private jet, to follow a candidate who hasn't declared, for a race that is not being run.

It is one month out in the California gubernatorial election. The dull (incumbent Gray Davis, who in a rare flash of color said that Al Gore is his charisma adviser) is leading the desperate (Republican Bill Simon, who is on his fourth campaign manager and, a year into the campaign, is running "Do you know me?" ads). Like most Californians, who are famously allergic to politics, I want no part of either. Sixty-five percent of likely voters say they wish someone else were running, and the someone most often mentioned is the man for whom I'm inhaling large clouds of bugs: actor/humanitarian/Conan-the-Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold, or "Ahh-nuld" as he calls himself, is barnstorming the state to drum up support for Proposition 49, a ballot initiative that would increase access to after-school programs by making matching grants available for all K-9 public schools. It is not a celebrity sign-on project like the George Foreman Grill. It is Arnold-authored. The proposition's website is joinarnold.com. And its passage seems entirely dependent on the action star's cult of personality--not a bad thing in California, where neither "cult" nor "personality" is a word generally associated with Davis or Simon.

After flirting with running for governor last year, Arnold as recently as late September quashed speculation that he'd mount a last-minute write-in campaign, a rumor that was given oxygen when his own pollster quietly asked about potential write-in support in a Prop 49 poll. Indeed, the crowds and buzz Arnold generates at each stop feel less like an education forum for some down-ballot initiative, more like the early rumblings of a presidential campaign (though being president is not in the cards for a naturalized citizen from Graz, Austria, despite Schwarzenegger's joke that constitutions are made to be amended).

On the runway, I am joined by giddy members of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department. The Republicans among them fill me in on political topography. They tell me that the place they're taking Arnold for his event--Martinez--is the birthplace of the martini. But mostly, they do what California Republicans have done ever since Pete Wilson was term-limited out of the governor's mansion in 1998: complain about the complete abasement of the state Republican party. Republicans boast just one statewide officeholder, are a minority in both the legislature and congressional delegation, and are expected to stay that way for at least the next decade. One sheriff's department employee says things have gotten so bleak that the local Republican boss "is a 22-year-old college student who sounds like he's 12. It reminds me of when the Oakland A's were losing so badly that they had to sign a broadcast contract with a college station. We have absolutely no direction."

Of the current gubernatorial crop, one says, "I wouldn't vote for either of these guys. Both are nitwits." When asked about Schwarzenegger, he immediately perks up. A few weeks ago, he says, he accompanied Arnold to an editorial board meeting at the Contra Costa Times. "Arnold is sitting at one of these long tables in between a deputy publisher and an editor. These are salty dogs, whiskered editorial page folks. But at some point, I look up, and they've come out of their seats and they're doing high-fives across the table because Arnold is talking about doing 'Terminator 4.'"

Sheriff Warren Rupf, who doubles as president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, says his organization, like every other law enforcement organization in the state, has endorsed Prop 49, since after-school programs curtail crime by keeping unsupervised juveniles off the street. His association has also endorsed Gray Davis, but when asked what they'd have done if Arnold were running, he says, "I'm glad we haven't had to make that choice." Rupf is tall and Germanic and strikes one as a serious man with a serious mustache and a serious firearm, but when speaking of Schwarzenegger, he sounds like a common groupie: "Arnold has a well-developed sense of humor, and a passion for doing things that are going to improve kids' chances to get ahead. As I told him, you're a hero--but not for the reasons you see on screen."

Just then, Schwarzenegger's plane lands. Even through the window of his Cessna Citation Excel, his jaws look as powerful as a Black Forest nutcracker. More compact than onscreen, his drum-tight skin is a suspiciously even bronze. His face is all sharp angles and symmetrical planes--a cinderblock with hair. His eyes serve as calipers, making you conscious of your own body fat. When he removes his jacket, showing his arms, even his veins have veins. As Pauline Kael once noted, he seems to have "hams implanted above his elbows."

Spying the sheriff as he descends from the plane, Arnold repeatedly roars a hearty "RRRupf!"--rolling the name around in his mouth like a Viennese confection. "I don't like when you're around," he tells the power-forward-sized sheriff, "because I don't like people who are bigger than I am." As Schwarzenegger's press secretary introduces us, I tell him I'll be a fly-on-the-wall for the day. Oh great, he says, rolling his eyes, "I sleep with a journalist [his wife, Maria Shriver]. I know what that means."

In a caravan, we depart for the sheriff's office for a press conference highlighting Prop 49. When Schwarzenegger arrives, he is mobbed by reporters, a scene you won't see replicated at a press conference for, say, Prop 46, a bond issue to refurbish low-income housing. Immediately, a television reporter cuts to the money question, since media types are more concerned about Arnold's gubernatorial prospects in 2006 than they are Prop 49's in 2002.

"Is this a run for governor?" she pants. Arnold squares up and fixes her with a most solemn gaze. "This is a run for the children," he says. It is hard to imagine even a gold-plated children-shiller like Hillary Clinton delivering this line with a straight face. Apparently, it is a bit much for Arnold as well. "Heh! Heh!" he says in my ear, throwing me a battering-ram nudge. "See how I got out of dat one." As I laugh involuntarily, the reporter skitters over, asking, "What did he say?" At first, I think she wants me to disclose Schwarzenegger's sotto voce comment. But it was his original reply she couldn't decipher. "I can't understand him," she complains.

Indeed, it has been 34 years since the 55-year-old Schwarzenegger left his native Austria with nothing more than a gym bag, washing up on our shores to take over the bodybuilding world, then the film world, and next, well, probably the world. But much as Texas politicians tend to talk like they've just taken a break from punching cattle, Arnold seems to have allowed his accent to grow stronger, another instance of his self-marketing genius. With his thick-tongued Styrian enunciations--the Austrian equivalent of a Mississippi accent--his "w's" become "v's," his "th's" become "d's," his diphthongs, dip-wrongs. Still, these Teutonic gutturals make for an oddly pleasing accent, freighting even throwaway utterances with extra comic punch that would allow Schwarzenegger to read the phone book, or even a Gray Davis speech, and still be entertaining.

Outside the station house, Arnold does a turn with the kids, who are standing in front of a construction mock-up of a miniature city, which they use for role-playing purposes in their after-school program. Fishing pieces of paper out of a bowl, on which are scrawled various issues (auto theft, vandalism), the kids discuss how they would address these problems if they were sheriff for a day. I ask one 9-year-old aspiring Smoky how she'd eliminate graffiti. "Get more, like, after-school programs that kids can go to," she says. As at most top-shelf political gatherings, the props have been well coached. Another is asked if she knows who Arnold is. "Yeah, he's that guy from 'Kindergarten Cop,'" she says, admitting that she's not allowed to watch his R-rated fare. "I like violence!" chips in the one slightly off-message child. (While one estimate says 383 people have died in his films, Arnold, who now has four kids of his own, has made a pronounced effort in recent years to take on lower-body-count projects.)

After the grip'n'grins, Arnold disappears into a back room to meet with local law enforcement types. Journalists are barred, but as the fly-on-the-wall, I'm permitted entry. By way of explanation, Arnold interrupts what he's saying to point me out and announce, "He's a fly on de wall." "Then why'd you introduce him?" asks one officer. Another suggests I get swatted.

Once inside, I expect to see deals being made, territories divvied, supplicants lobbying the future governor for patronage jobs for their idiot brothers-in-law. Instead, they are pumping him for information about the upcoming "Terminator 3." One official commiserates that costly special effects eat through most of the budget. "Yah, they spend all the money, I get nothing," offers Arnold, who's actually getting $30 million. As the advance team second-guess themselves, I am asked to leave. "Now what are you doing?" Arnold asks his people. "Why are you taking the fly off de vall?" I tell him I shouldn't be privy to such sensitive conversations. "Yeah, right," he scoffs self-deprecatingly.

STEPPING INTO THE Prop 49 campaign is like falling into a Pete Wilson time warp. For though it is a feel-good proposition--being for after-school care is as politically risky as being against eating puppies--Arnold is leaving nothing to chance, and has hired a crackerjack staff. Besides spokeswoman Sheri Annis, a veteran of the more contentious campaigns for Prop 227 (eliminating bilingual education) and Prop 209 (eliminating race and gender-based preferences in government hiring), the rest of the brain trust are Wilson veterans.

Wilson himself is one of the campaign's co-chairs. Don Sipple, Wilson's former media guy, is now Arnold's ad man. Also advising Schwarzenegger are Wilson's former chief of staff Bob White and Wilson's former policy cruncher Paul Miner, who does the same for Arnold. Overseeing it all is George Gorton, Wilson's campaign manager, who not only steered Wilson to victory in four statewide races but made a name for himself as part of the mercenary team of American advisers who helped Boris Yeltsin win Russia's second democratic election (albeit through heavy use of undemocratic, state-controlled media).

The difference between working for Yeltsin and working for Arnold, says Gorton, is that Yeltsin was "an alcoholic, surrounded by aristocratic, arrogant, and mostly corrupt people." Arnold, he says, "is the nicest guy I ever met." In fact, when Arnold found out Gorton's wife (also a political consultant) was an amateur actress, without Gorton's asking, Arnold screen-tested her for "Terminator 3" and gave her a bit part. This is not to suggest that one of the state's most formidable campaign teams has gone showbiz. "Dude," warns Arnold's policy director Paul Miner, "if you call us 'an entourage,' you're off the f--ing plane."

While these staffers insist they have not discussed a Schwarzenegger 2006 gubernatorial run (even though Gorton was hired shortly before Arnold announced he wouldn't run this cycle), it would take a pretty naive customer to believe that all these gunslingers just want to pass after-school care for the kids. For irony-seekers, there is the added bonus that the same group that promoted the divisive Prop 187 (cutting services for illegal aliens) is now in place to grease the skids for the first immigrant governor of "Cal-ee-for-nee-ahhh," as Arnold says.

If there is a whiff of place-holding and trial-ballooning about the whole enterprise, Schwarzenegger, it should be noted, is not an Arnie-come-lately to children's issues. Over the last 20 years, he has done extensive work with the Special Olympics, served as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness for the first President Bush, and in 1995 co-founded the Inner-City Games Foundation, an after-school program for over 200,000 kids. Comb Arnold stories through the years, and a natural progression is evident, from the lubed-up bodybuilder who in the 1970s said, "Modesty is not a word that applies to me in any way," to today's Arnold who says, "There's a time when it's always just me, me, me. But all of the sudden, when you break the mirror in front of you, you want to reach out and help other people."

At the press conference, Arnold proves that's he's more than just a heavily muscled piece of meat. He shows mastery of budgetary minutiae. He recasts what could be a conservative critique--that he is advocating expansion of government in a sagging economy--to fit into his socially liberal (he's pro-choice and favors "sensible" gun control), fiscally conservative philosophy. He marshals studies showing that the state will save money in crime prevention, emphasizing that funding for his initiative will only be triggered after the state is in better financial health.

Arnold thrusts and parries and plays to the crowd. When a reporter asks about token opposition from groups like the League of Women Voters, he counters by pulling out a list (running 12 pages) of endorsing groups across the political spectrum, then threatens to read the entire thing. Another interlocutor tries to thump him for his violent films. Arnold counters that he can influence kids for good as a result of his action-star perch, then he shamelessly plugs "Collateral Damage," just released on DVD. By the end of the speech, the man a Playboy magazine writer once called "one of the more finely tuned control freaks that I have met in a career of celebrity interviews" is actually thanking the media for their support. Suddenly, what could have been a journalistic feeding frenzy has turned into a trip to the petting zoo for Arnold. By press conference's end, fierce political reporters are applauding, getting their bellies scratched like they're on a John McCain bus tour.

But reporters aren't the only Republican-resistant constituency Arnold appears to be capable of charming. As we travel to the San Jose Mercury News so that he can lobby for an editorial board endorsement, I get parked in the lobby. Here, I conduct an unscientific focus group with the women in classified advertising, one of whom is a Democrat who actually says, upon being informed that Arnold is here, "Oh, I've got to look pretty then." Of the women I speak with, six say that if Arnold were running for governor today, they'd vote for him, two are undecided, and one wouldn't vote for him, since she's convinced he hates Hispanics, though she can't recall why.

When Schwarzenegger exits the meeting, I inform him things are looking good for a run, though he might have creeping negatives among Latinos. But he has other things on his mind. Though the editorial board meeting seemed to go well, he doesn't care. "Every one of them could go by and hit me in the head. But if they endorse [the proposition], it's fine with me. Sometimes you have the most fun time, and then you don't get the endorsement--they screw you, you know."

AFTER A SHORT HOP to Sacramento, Schwarzenegger displays yet another political gift: the ability to appear authentic even in the treacliest settings. He has come to the North Area Teen Center to sell his proposition by doing what all politicians do, and most don't do very well: pandering to children. The center, which sits next to a Tae Kwon Do studio in a strip mall, is a veritable Potemkin village of wholesome teen and preteen after-school activity.

From the overstuffed couches to the ping pong and pool tables, from the tutor-stocked computer labs, to the old-school soda fountain, it seems the kind of place Archie and Jughead would've gone to if they'd been latchkey kids. Arnold snakes around the television area, where teenagers are obligatorily watching "Kindergarten Cop," and decides to join some 10th graders in a spirited foosball game.

The rule of thumb in such situations is to exert effort, but let the kids win, then give an oafish aren't-I-a-big-doofus chuckle before patting them on the head, offering a strained metaphor for whatever you're peddling, and moving on to the next prop. But Arnold grabs the two middle handles, and starts taking it at the goalie, blocking all his clearing shots, stuffing him like a Christmas turkey. Finally, after toying with him a bit, he sinks a lightning-quick pull shot, and though I expect him to finish off the kid with one of his trademark corny one-liners (something like "Milk is for babies, men drink beer"), he just lets the kid suck on defeat, giving him the same canary-eating grin that he gave the vanquished Lou Ferrigno during the 1977 Mr. Universe documentary "Pumping Iron."

Arnold then makes his way over to a busy circle of high schoolers, who look up from their algebra. He asks them if they like doing homework. They do. "You do?" he asks. "I'll admit it, when I was your age, I hated it. But my moth-ahh would spend time with me, saying read out loud. When I stopped, with a yahhhhd-stick, she would hit me over de head. Do you know how fast I read again? I was reading so fast, let me tell you."

Arnold is merely stressing that kids, left to their own devices, will often become the degenerates that places like the teen center are funded to prevent. Still, seeing him careen into the third-rail of corporal punishment is somewhat refreshing, even if the program director's jaw seems to drop when she asks if he is advocating yardstick beatings. "No," he says, "times have changed, but I mean in those days, it was a very physical situation. . . . But you know something? It helped me. Keep up the good work, okay, see you, bye-bye."

THROUGHOUT THE DAY, most of our chatting gets done on Arnold's time-shared private jets. His press secretary, Sheri Annis, says this is one of the many luxuries she didn't see when working on prior proposition efforts. For other campaigns, she was the organization, planning everything down to hanging bunting off the podium. "One reporter would show up," she says, "and we were damn happy to have him." Arnold's proposition campaign has raised $8 million--the first million of which came from him. (By comparison, Bill Simon's campaign has only $4 million on hand for the rest of the election.)

In the middle of our travels, we switch from the smaller Citation Excel to a lavish Gulfstream IV-SP, the world's premier large-cabin jet. It comes with gold-fitted drink holders, walnut paneling, even a roll-top wooden drawer concealing the toilet paper in the lavatory. The leather seats are so buttery smooth that the captain says the cows from which they were borrowed were "better than free range. They never got in any scuffs or discussions."

Throughout the day, there is all sorts of rather un-politician-like behavior from Arnold. When he lights up a stogie, and I ask him what brand, knowing that he has visited the Partagas factory in Havana, everyone falls silent. "Freebies," says his policy director Paul Miner, "that's his brand." "Like a gifted horse," adds Arnold, "you don't look it in the mouth."

There is also, over a day's course, a fair amount of good-natured hazing. When a stewardess goofs his meal order, he turns to me and calls her "a forehead" (his term of endearment for the not-so-bright). When a staffer suggests I take off my suit jacket to make myself more comfortable, Arnold booms, in his best Hans & Franz voice: "I think he has a shitty bod-eee; I think he's really worried to take off de jacket."

About his gubernatorial ambitions, Schwarzenegger is circumspect since he doesn't want to step on the publicity he's generating for Prop 49. He's been getting pushed to run for governor, he says, ever since he rocketed to fame in the late seventies, when friends fantasized that he'd go up against Jane Fonda in a celebrity death match. These days, columnists are trying to promote a 2006 face-off with Rob Reiner, aka Meathead from "All in the Family." Further evidencing Arnold's cross-partisan appeal, when I call Meathead's people, they tell me Reiner has such high regard for Arnold that he donated $5,000 to his Prop 49 campaign.

Of the speculation Arnold says, "I pay no attention to it." But then he turns around and says, "Even though I would like to say, 'of course it would be great for me to be governor,' I don't say it, because people misinterpret. That would be the story the next day on the news, and the kids would suffer because nobody's promoting their after-school program."

When the Prop 49 campaign is over, he says, "Then I can talk about it with the press and not worry about it. . . . One thing I know for sure is that if I would've been able to run [this year], I would've." But that would have meant bailing on contractual film obligations, which would have forced producer friends to sue him. "You would've seen the ads," he says: "'If this is how he treats his friends, how can we leave him in charge of the economy?'" When I ask what the numbers were like on his pollster's trial balloon, asking if voters would support a write-in candidacy, most of Arnold's people conveniently claim not to know, though Arnold himself mischievously mouths "very big."

For advice on how to dodge questions about his political future, Arnold has turned to Maria Shriver, who once told her Kennedy kin: "Don't look at [Arnold] as a Republican, look at him as the man I love. And if that doesn't work, look at him as someone who can squash you." His wife, he says, gives him eloquently simple advice: "She said, 'Don't screw up.' I said, 'How can I make sure of that?' She said, 'Don't talk.'"

It's not the first time he's turned to the Shrivers for guidance. While he considers himself a true-blue Republican, he says his wife's parents, Sargent and Eunice of Peace Corps and Special Olympics fame, are his "biggest allies." His mother-in-law, he says, serves as a clipping service--constantly sending him articles and book chapters. She even critiques his "Tonight Show" appearances, pointing out when he drops the ball, playing something for laughs when he could have launched into a serious discussion of the issues. As for their spirited dinner-table debates, he says, "I can't fill you in. Then I'd have to call Eunice and ask if I can give away the statements she makes. They're quite outrageous sometimes. I mean, they should have a fly on dat wall."

While he takes some pointers from the in-laws--he calls Kennedy wordsmith Robert Shrum a "buddy," who has sometimes lent a hand on speeches--Arnold clouds over when I ask if he'd be eligible for the largesse of the Kennedy fund-raising machine if he ran. He says he doesn't need their money, "or anything else. I never asked them for anything, and never will. I have my own team, and I'm very happy with the team. I always go for the top of the line in everything I do."

The team, of course, does not say publicly that they wish for Simon to lose, clearing the way for Arnold (in fact campaign manager Gorton says he hopes Simon wins). While admitting that Simon is not a friend (Arnold campaigned for Richard Riordan, Simon's primary opponent), when it comes to poor-mouthing feckless Republicans, Arnold takes his wife's advice. His political strategy is much like his acting method, which he describes as "banging it out." What do Republicans need to do to gain statewide office? "Win," he says.

ARNOLD THE REPUBLICAN is sometimes compared to Ronald Reagan because of their showbiz pedigrees, but there was one reason Arnold signed on with the GOP: Richard Nixon. While watching a Nixon speech in 1968, one which a friend translated because Arnold's English was still so spotty, his friend told him, "He's a Republican--it's the wrong party." But listening to Nixon advocate a stronger military, "getting the government off our back," and opening up trade, "I said, 'No, I love what this guy is saying. If this guy is a Republican, then I am a Republican." He told the story to Nixon some years later, and naturally, Nixon adored it. Here, Arnold lapses into a perfect Nixon impression (the best acting he's done since 1988's "Twins"): "You'd make a great politician. If you ever run for governor, you have my help."

It's a little late to get Nixon's help, but if he runs in 2006, Schwarzenegger might still enjoy a big push from on high. Last year when asked to speculate about a possible Arnold candidacy, presidential adviser Karl Rove sounded enthusiastic, telling the New York Times, "That would be nice. That would be really nice. That would be really, really nice."

Arnold could face a major impediment, however. Last year, stories in both the National Enquirer and Premiere magazine alleged that Arnold had been grabby with some British television hostesses while promoting a film ("Kindergarten Cop-a-Feel" chimed one tabloid), as well as engaging in some more sustained extramarital shenanigans. With an Arnold run rumored to be imminent, Gray Davis's campaign manager, Garry South, wasted no time faxing the articles to reporters, with the inscription, "a real touching story." Arnold nixed running shortly thereafter, leading many to speculate that it was these stories, and not contractual concerns, that kept him out of the gubernatorial race.

I have deliberately saved questions on this matter for the last leg of our trip back to Los Angeles, not wishing to get pummeled like a girly man, or (more important) to get tossed from the plane and stranded in Sacramento. But strapped into his seat, eating a plate of fruit, Arnold cavalierly and forthrightly beats me to the subject. Explaining how entertainment reporters, unlike political reporters, rarely want to do him in, he turns to his press secretary saying, "Except for, you know--what's that magazine that wrote that shitty article about me? Premiere--yah." Of the Davis campaign manager's blast faxes, he says, "First of all, I didn't expect anything less from Garry South." But still, he says, the fact that they thought of him "as so much of a threat" was "incredible" and probably a good indication of "how [South] feels about his candidate."

As for the charges, Arnold says they are outlandish and untrue. Much of the Premiere reporting contains background sniping. Many of the named grousees were in strangely public situations that would have seemed reckless even by Clintonian standards if Arnold had been committing actual lechery, instead of harmless flirtations in bad taste. For instance, Denise Van Outen, onetime host of Great Britain's "Big Breakfast" show, in which she interviewed guests in a bed, was openly flirtatious with Arnold, saying, "You grabbed my breast," then adding, "I really like it. Go on, have another go." To which Arnold replied, "It was a handful. I never know if my wife's watching. I'll tell her it was a stuntman."

There were also examples of more piggish behavior--for instance, Arnold supposedly groped "Terminator" co-star Linda Hamilton in a limo in front of her boyfriend/director James Cameron, and a visitor to the set of one of his films is supposed to have happened on him in his trailer, orally gratifying someone other than his wife. Arnold says these are fantasies. After the Premiere piece, numerous celebrities, including Hamilton and Cameron, wrote letters to the editor claiming the charges were "pure fiction" (the reporter stood by his story).

Schwarzenegger says that the charges were so outrageous that "half of it in there, right off the top, my wife didn't believe," so "I don't have to explain that much to her." To take the trailer incident as an example, he says, "When someone said [they] walked into my trailer, and I was eating a chick in the living room, [Maria] knows I'm not that stupid, number one. Number two, I have two guards standing out at all times in front of my trailer so no one could walk in. . . . That already makes the story not credible."

"That does not mean I'm not guilty of some of this stuff," he says, referring to his well-earned reputation for having a ribald sense of humor. "In the last few years," he says, "I've toned it down because it has become a different world now, because of the sexual harassment. . . . You do things that someone today may take as [going] too far." Then, with a Mephistophelean smirk, he adds, "But no one that has been around me would believe that a woman would be complaining about me holding her."

At this point, antsy handlers pull Arnold to the front of the plane for "planning," but not before he promises, "I'll be back." And not before he praises George W. Bush. While Arnold is a little skeptical about Bush's designs on Iraq (though not enough to elaborate, since there's no mention of regime change in Prop 49), he says of the president, "He's a great guy, I think he's learned a lot." While people initially thought Bush unqualified, "He's proven otherwise. It's always good to be underestimated."

That is not something likely to happen with Arnold's political future. Since state GOP chair Shawn Steel is one of the last men in California who believes Simon can win (thus fouling an Arnold run in 2006), he is already pushing Schwarzenegger to consider challenging Senator Barbara Boxer in two years. Staying out of this year's race, say some of the state's top Republican strategists, was one of the smartest plays Arnold could make. "You don't want to be governor next year," says one. "The budget's a mess, they're going to have to raise taxes, the governor is going to have a very rough year."

Meanwhile, says Steel, Arnold is building a statewide political profile by pushing a win-win proposition that helps kids without raising taxes, he's assembled one of the best political teams around, and he's building up IOU's by making appearances for Republicans. All of this, says Steel, means "he's ideally positioned to do whatever he wants."

Of Arnold's pro-choice stance--which he makes no bones about--one influential Republican says this will actually help him in a general election, and wouldn't hurt him much in a primary. "It will upset about 20 to 40 percent of our base, but because he's a celebrity, there's going to be a huge forgiveness factor. If Simon loses, Davis will have been at it for eight years, and by then we'll look more economically socialist than Sweden, so the base will be ready for anything."

Regarding the Davis and Simon campaigns, which have been fraught with ethical lapses and strategic bungles, the mood has probably best been captured by Lyn Nofziger, a California hand from the Reagan years, whom the Simon campaign once billed as an adviser (Nofziger, understandably, denies it). Californians, he wrote, "can reelect an inept, corrupt incumbent Democrat named Gray Davis. Or they can elect an inept, weak, and not very bright Republican named Bill Simon. Take your pick. But be smart. Bet on Davis. Simon is too dumb to win."

As for Arnold, the more evidence accrues, the more it seems Californians could do worse than having Schwarzenegger as their governor. From the looks of things this cycle, they already have.

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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