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Front-Runner Shifts to Damage Control

Schwarzenegger issues a blanket apology to any women he offended, then says in a TV interview he'll address specifics after election.

October 06, 2003|Megan Garvey and Peter Nicholas

From the stage of a rally in San Diego on Thursday, Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to put potentially damaging allegations that he had groped and humiliated women behind him by issuing a blanket apology.

The Republican front-runner's public contrition launched his campaign's effort to deal with a controversy that threatened to derail their agenda on the last days on the trail. As Tuesday's election drew nearer, a damage control strategy unfolded.

Schwarzenegger issued general apologies to any women he offended over the years. He and his aides denied some of the specific allegations as they came up and said he had no recollection of others. Schwarzenegger refused to get into the details, and told NBC's Tom Brokaw on Sunday that he would address the accusations after the election.

Surrogates, including his wife, Maria Shriver, and longtime movie industry colleagues, came forward to vouch for his character or cast doubt on the women's stories.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Schwarzenegger quote -- Because of an inaccurate transcript from NBC News, Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to a question posed by Tom Brokaw was incorrectly reported in articles in Monday's Section A. To the question "So you deny all those stories about grabbing?" Schwarzenegger said, "No, not all." The stories quoted Schwarzenegger as saying "not at all."

And, as more women came forward, the campaign stepped up accusations that The Times was practicing "gutter journalism" and that Democrats practicing "puke politics" were behind the campaign.

Schwarzenegger, however, did not directly answer questions about the types of behavior he was referring to when he spoke of participating in the antics on "rowdy sets." In the Brokaw interview, he gave confusing responses, saying, "I never grabbed anyone," and moments later, when asked whether he was denying all the stories about grabbing, saying, "Not at all."

The effort to rebut allegations by women -- six at first, 15 by week's end -- of incidents that spanned three decades began with Schwarzenegger surrounded by cheering supporters.

Leading the polls in the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger admitted that he had "behaved badly" in the past. In doing so, he took the advice of his top political strategists, who believed the apology would allow the campaign to move forward less than a week before election day.

The story broke on the first day of a four-day bus tour of the state with scores of reporters from around the country and world aboard.

Without specifically addressing allegations by the women that he had grabbed breasts and buttocks and made lewd comments, Schwarzenegger said, "I always say that wherever there is smoke, there is fire."

When another story appeared Friday in The Times, with more women coming forward to say Schwarzenegger had touched or harassed them, Schwarzenegger aides launched an aggressive counterattack, challenging the newspaper's methods.

"Once it became clear that The Times was going to essentially seek to publish daily stories through the election ... elbows were going to sharpen in response," said a Schwarzenegger aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was a combination of strategy and truly righteous indignation about what's going on."

By making the newspaper the issue, the campaign hoped to deflect attention from the accusations.

Schwarzenegger stuck to the multi-pronged strategy. He questioned the timing of the reports and the credibility of some of the women. He called some of the accusations "absolutely untrue" and also seemed indignant that the allegations had been made so many years later.

"Why have they not come out before?" he asked reporters Saturday. "Why have they not called me? Why has nobody ever told me, 'Arnold, you went too far'? Because if someone says that to me, I would apologize immediately. Because that is not my intent. This [is] all politics ... the dirty, dirty politics. That is what this is."

In meetings with small groups of reporters, many of whom questioned him about the allegations of misconduct and reports that he at one time had expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, Schwarzenegger continued to air his grievances. He did brief television interviews, agreeing Sunday to speak to two national network news anchors, Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings.

But on the stump throughout the bus tour, he mostly stuck to the script that predated the accusations. He told crowds that he wanted to roll back increases in the car tax and reduce workers' compensation costs.

At the same time, the campaign added messages aimed at bolstering confidence in the candidate. Shriver spoke of her husband in loving terms at appearances in Pleasanton and Clovis. Actress Tia Carrere and other well-known women described him as a gentleman. Women would pack the stage at his appearances.

"There's been some acknowledgment of what is going on in the news cycle," campaign spokesman Rob Stutzman said in an interview Sunday. "But the campaign is on its game plan. We're confident where we're at."

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