New reports that the former bodybuilder had groped women and once said he admired the Nazi leader surfaced Thursday as he began a four-day campaign bus tour. Schwarzenegger's popularity had surged in the polls, and his entourage was met by cheering crowds, but the focus had shifted to his past.
Stories by ABC News and The New York Times said the actor told an interviewer during the filming of the bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron" in 1975 that he admired Hitler's rise to power from humble beginnings.
Schwarzenegger, with wife Maria Shriver at his side, told a late-night news conference Thursday that he didn't recall making the remarks.
"I don't remember any of those comments because I always despise everything that Hitler stood for," Schwarzenegger said, calling the Nazi leader a "disgusting villain."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who opposes the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, said of the reported comment, "I think it's appalling."
"Your personal behavior does affect you in public office," Feinstein said on NBC's "Today" show Friday. "I like to believe and hope that we elect the best among us, not some of the least among us."
Hours before the reported comments about Hitler surfaced Thursday, Schwarzenegger addressed allegations in the Los Angeles Times, which reported the claims of six women who accused him of sexually harassing and groping them between 1975 and 2000.
"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 now I recognize that I offended people," Schwarzenegger said. "Those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry."
Asked about the groping allegations, Shriver referred her to husband's remarks: "As I say to my children, it always takes great courage to stand before anybody and apologize, and I think that's what Arnold did today," Shriver said.
CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman reports that Schwarzenegger aides are more concerned about the sexual allegations. They hope the candidate's admission and apology will put an end to the story, but fear there could be additional allegations by other women, and that the controversy will compel some of Schwarzenegger's less fervent supporters to vote for someone else.
A poll conducted early this week, before the latest reports surfaced, found 57 percent of voters ready to oust Davis in the Oct. 7 recall election. Schwarzenegger was the front-runner to replace him, with 36 percent support, followed by Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, with 26 percent. The poll had a margin of sampling error of 4.8 percentage points.
ABC and The New York Times obtained copies of an unpublished book proposal with quotes from a transcript of the 1975 interview, in which Schwarzenegger allegedly said, "I admired Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education, up to power."
He also allegedly said he wished he could experience addressing a crowd at a huge political rally.
"The feeling like Kennedy had, you know, to speak to maybe 50,000 people at one time and having them cheer, or like Hitler in the Nuremberg stadium," he said, according to the transcript. "And have all those people scream at you and just being in total agreement with whatever you say."
The author of the book proposal, "Pumping Iron" director George Butler, said the quotes needed to be seen in context to be understood. Butler told The New York Times he stood by a recollection of Schwarzenegger playing Nazi marches and mimicking S.S. officers, but said Schwarzenegger was an immature young man involved in the bodybuilding culture of the 1970s.
Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman Sean Walsh called the story "the worst kind of political smear, the worst."
Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria where his father was a member of the Nazi Party. He has faced charges of Nazi sympathizing before but has worked hard to refute them and has donated to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization.
Davis said he found Schwarzenegger's reported comments about Hitler "particularly offensive."
"I don't see how anyone can admire Adolf Hitler. Any decent American has to be offended by that phrase," Davis said in a broadcast interview Friday morning.
He declined to discuss the groping allegations, saying, "The voters will determine how significant that story is."
During a debate Thursday evening among the other top replacement candidates — Schwarzenegger was absent — state Sen. Tom McClintock said he was skeptical of what he called a "last-minute character assassination." But after the debate, he said Schwarzenegger should drop out if the allegations were true.
The Times said none of the actor's political opponents put reporters in touch with the women and that none had come forward on their own. None had brought legal action against Schwarzenegger, the newspaper said.
Representatives of several women's organizations, including California NOW, planned a press conference outside the first stop on Schwarzenegger's bus tour Friday to call upon the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to launch a criminal investigation into the groping allegations.
Some analysts said the revelations could change voters' minds about Schwarzenegger.
"This is not just philandering or adultery — this is stuff that people get fired for pretty regularly," said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at University of California, Berkeley. "If Arnold is saying he can grope women because people on movie sets play by a different set of rules, I don't know that people will buy that."
But given the timing and other considerations, Cain said it was unclear whether the controversy would help Davis. "I have no doubt this will cost Arnold votes among women, but I don't know how men will react."