A day can make a big difference in a high-velocity campaign. During a brief encounter with the Weekly on Thursday — the day the Times’ hit piece came out — Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed a bit stricken. He moved slowly during a tour of a San Bernardino elementary school, his voice a little quieter, his greetings less ebullient. After all, the start of his deluxe campaign bus tour of the state had just been hit by a bus in the form of a story detailing alleged sexual misconduct. Mostly closeted away from the press in between big rallies around the Southland, the gubernatorial front-runner may have feared his drive to victory next Tuesday had been derailed by elements of his past.

By early Friday morning, the Arnold Express seemed back on track. Three-thousand people turned up at 8:30 a.m. for a rally at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia. Roaring their disapproval of the L.A. Times, which may have bit off more than it can chew in going to war with Schwarzenegger, the crowd seemed ready both to take Times Mirror Square and march on the state Capitol, where the statewide tour culminates Sunday.

Heady though these atmospherics were, the best news for Schwarzenegger came in the form of overnight polls, which showed the recall winning by a wide margin and his lead over Cruz Bustamante actually registering a slight increase.

Schwarzenegger was running 10 to 14 points ahead of Bustamante in his own and Democratic tracking polls going in to Thursday night. After a day of saturation coverage of the sex charges, Schwarzenegger actually gained one to two points. The explanation? Pollsters on both sides said people have mostly made up their minds about this election. Schwarzenegger has succeeded in focusing the election on change vs. the status quo. And Davis is so seriously disliked — “Nixonian” is the term used by Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo’s — that the late attacks seem a reconfirmation of what Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer calls “puke politics.” It’s the same genre as Davis’ patented attack mode which turned off voters last November and which, in part, precipitated this year’s recall when the budget crisis proved much larger than Davis had said. Davis erred Friday morning by saying on Good Morning America that the charges against Schwarzenegger “shock the public conscience.” In so doing, the embattled governor firmly placed his fingerprints where he cannot afford to have them.

As the Democrats frantically scrambled to rev up the sex charges, Schwarzenegger faced new allegations about the past, this time about comments he supposedly made about Hitler in the 1970s. The campaign did what any front-running effort does when the Hitler issue rears up. It went on the offensive and threw an impromptu town-hall meeting in Santa Clarita.

Did Schwarzenegger’s alleged remarks about his admiration for Hitler’s ability to mesmerize a crowd and his rise from nowhere make the candidate a Nazi sympathizer? The back-to-back days of charges perhaps helped Schwarzenegger by making the close of the campaign seem a fur ball of charges against the ex–Mr. Universe. He changed what had been a pooled press factory tour in Santa Clarita into an outdoor town hall. It was a luxury afforded him by the hundreds of supporters who simply showed up in the mountain community after hearing he would be there. This, the thinking went, would give him a substantive presence in the news flow while the sex and Hitler charges were bandied about.

Buoyed by the nightly tracking polls and the huge crowd at his morning rally, Schwarzenegger was now in a better mood, bantering with the rather bumbling city-councilman MC and giving enthusiastic answers to questions from the crowd as 40 TV cameras rolled.

“I can feel it happening now,” he remarked with a grin as he made his way back to his bus, his endorsement from John McCain freshly announced. Add to that a rendezvous with ex–New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at a boisterous rally of 5,000 in Bakersfield.

Friday is usually the last day in a campaign to drop a bomb on a candidate and have it be taken seriously. With the recall leading by nearly 20 points going into the final weekend, Bustamante seemingly stalled, and Schwarzenegger’s momentum apparently re-established, California seems on the verge of a major change.

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