Sexual misconduct allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger roiled California's gubernatorial recall race Thursday as the Republican apologized for having "behaved badly" toward women while insisting he would champion their cause.
Responding to a Los Angeles Times story on accusations by six women that he touched them in a sexual manner without their consent, Schwarzenegger dismissed the report as "trash politics," but went on to acknowledge unspecified wrongdoing.
"I always say that wherever there is smoke, there is fire," he told several hundred cheering supporters at a San Diego rally.
"So I want to say to you, yes, I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets, and I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful. But I now 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."
Asked later about the specific incidents in an interview on CNN, Schwarzenegger said: "I don't remember so many of the things that I was accused of having done."
Pressed further, he said: "I would say most of it is not true."
He also sought to shift blame to his opponents. "It's very interesting that since I'm ahead in the campaign ... all the things are coming out," he said. "I'm very pro-women. I'm very much into equality. Those things are not coming out."
Schwarzenegger's strategists had designed the closing part of the campaign -- a four-day bus tour of the state -- as a "triumphal march." Instead, the candidate began the day apologizing for sexual misconduct. By nightfall he was sitting with his wife, responding not only to that issue, but to allegations in the New York Times and on ABC's "World News Tonight" that he had expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler during the 1970s.
The Austrian-born actor denied the accusation and called Hitler a "disgusting villain."
"I always despised everything Hitler stood for," said Schwarzenegger, whose father was a Nazi. "I hate the regime, the Third Reich and all of those whole Nazi philosophy, have always fought against that."
Political strategists differed on whether the sexual misconduct allegations might affect Tuesday's election.
The disclosures came a day after a confident Schwarzenegger had unveiled plans for his first 100 days in office. Recent polls have shown voters inclined to toss Gov. Gray Davis from office and replace him with Schwarzenegger.
Thursday's events made the tumultuous eight-week campaign even more volatile.
One Schwarzenegger event Thursday in Costa Mesa was disrupted when a Los Angeles woman, Gail Escobar, told reporters about an alleged confrontation with the actor many years ago.
As she spoke, an angry confrontation erupted between Schwarzenegger's supporters and roughly half a dozen female protesters carrying signs saying: "Hey, Arnold. Stop Harassing Women Now."
A supporter ripped in half a sign reading "No Groper for Governor." An elderly man shouted at the protesters: "You're too stupid to get respect!"
On a nationally syndicated radio show, Joy Browne, a psychologist, detailed an incident in the late 1970s in which she alleged Schwarzenegger had harassed her.
In Santa Monica, the disclosures dominated a campaign event by the governor at the pier aquarium. After one reporter asked Davis to comment on The Times story, another suggested ushering out the 30 Santa Clarita first-graders on hand to witness the governor's signing of four environmental bills. The children were led from the room before questioning resumed.
Davis was careful not to gloat over Schwarzenegger's situation. He called the allegations of groping and lewd language directed at women "a matter between the voters and their conscience."
"I would just rather leave this matter to the voters of this state," Davis said at the bill-signing ceremony. "They will digest it. They will decide what importance to attach to it."
But Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only Democratic officeholder running to replace Davis, seized on Schwarzenegger's apology as a new weapon against his chief Republican rival.
"These charges of sexual battery and harassment are serious and recent," Bustamante said at a Compton Community College campaign stop.
He read an excerpt from the California Penal Code, saying, "Any person who touches an intimate part of another person against the will of the person touched" is guilty of misdemeanor sexual battery.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, accused The Times of partisanship and excused Schwarzenegger's behavior; others expressed outrage over his admission of misconduct.
"What we saw in the L.A. Times today was not an attack on Arnold Schwarzenegger," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "It was an attack on every single one of us who want to take back California."