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Entering a crowded field that ranges porn king Larry Flynt and child-star-turned-security-guard Gary Coleman to pundit Arianna Huffington, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his intention Wednesday night to run for governor in the California recall election.

Schwarzenegger’s announcement — he threw his muscles into the ring during a taping of NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — terminates earlier reports that the star had opted not to run and was planning to throw his support behind former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan.

Even Schwarzenegger’s advisers were hinting that the “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” star had said hasta la vista to his gubernatorial aspirations.

POLL: If the recall succeeds, who would you vote for?
Gray Davis*
Larry Flynt
Arianna Huffington
Darrell Issa
Tom McClintock
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Other

        

*Currently, Gray Davis’s name would not appear on the ballot, though the governor’s lawyers are appealing that part of the recall law.

Schwarzenegger jumps to the front of the pack of Republican candidates, which also includes State Sen. Tom McClintock and Rep. Darrell Issa, the car alarm magnate who helped fund the recall drive.

As for his platform, the actor has obviously not fully articulated the issues he will run on but he did lambast the state’s special interest groups Wednesday and called for more help for kids and the elderly.

“We want to make sure children aren’t left without any books. We want to make sure our children have the books, that they have a place in the castle. We want to make sure that their mothers have affordable day care. We want to make sure we give the older people the care that they need,” Schwarzenegger told journalists Wednesday.

The announcement also sent shockwaves through the California Democratic Party, which continues to stand behind embattled Gov. Gray Davis and so far hasn’t fielded a major candidate on the ballot in case Davis is recalled.

“The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing,” Schwarzenegger said during the taping.

“The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis. He is failing them terribly, and this is why he needs to be recalled and this is why I am going to run for governor.”

Top Republican advisers had suggested that Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, had urged her husband not to run. And some inside the thesp’s camp were said to be concerned over the potential spotlight on Schwarzenegger’s personal life.

GOVERNOR’S POLL
Pick Count
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (59.8%) 140
GRAY DAVIS (19.7%) 46
LARRY FLYNT (7.3%) 17
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (6.8%) 16
OTHER (3.4%) 8
DARRELL ISSA (1.7%) 4
TOM MCCLINTOCK (0.9%) 2

In a well-publicized 2001 Premiere article by John Connolly, the magazine reported a series of allegations about Schwarzenegger, including claims that he groped women, conducted extramarital affairs and had abused steroids.

Schwarzenegger and his lawyer threatened to sue the magazine, while advisers to Davis seized on the negative story at the time, sending copies to state political reporters. Several of Schwarzenegger’s former co-stars rushed to the thesp’s defense, and the furor died down.

“I know they’re going to throw everything at me: I have no experience, I’m a womanizer and a terrible guy,” Schwarzenegger said. “You all know that Gray Davis knows how to run a dirty campaign better than anyone but he doesn’t know how to run a state. I will promise you when I go up to Sacramento, I will pump Sacramento up.”

Given the short campaign — voters head to the polls on Oct. 7 — Schwarzenegger probably realized that this was his best shot at becoming Governator. The thesp has long wanted to emulate another actor-turned-politician, two-term California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Schwarzenegger flirted with running in 2000 before ultimately passing. Besides his movies and rock-hard pecs, he’s known for his charity work with the Special Olympics and his push last year for a ballot initiative that authorized $550 million a year for after-school programs for California kids.

Name recognition make him an instant contender. Call it the Jesse Ventura factor — that former pro wrestler spurred non-voters to the polls, landing him the Minnesota governorship. And the quick election might minimize potential negative stories regarding his past.

The gubernatorial bid would seem to put several Schwarzenegger’s movie projects in limbo, though the studios and producers working with the actor were still digesting the news late on Wednesday.

With “Terminator 3” having grossed $283 million worldwide so far, there had been some talk of a fourth cyborg installment.

“T 3” producers Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar said, “Arnold is his own man and we support him 100% in whatever endeavor he chooses to pursue.”

Warner Bros., which handled domestic distribution on “T3,” is also developing a “Westworld” remake for the star. Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger also attached himself to a New Line comedy called “Big Sir.”

The wealthy actor, 56, made $30 million from “T3” alone. Born in Austria, he became a U.S. citizen in 1983. A professional bodybuilder and seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, Schwarzenegger’s movie career launched with “Conan the Barbarian,” while 1984’s “The Terminator” made him a superstar.

More than 400 potential candidates have already filed papers to appear on the Oct. 7 ballot, which will ask voters whether or not they want to oust Davis and give them a chance to choose his replacement.

Should Davis be recalled, the candidate with simply the most votes will win the governorship.

Schwarzenegger’s candidacy will put the pressure on Democrats to break ranks and place a candidate on the ballot.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein had earlier announced that she would not run; Rep. Loretta Sanchez is still mulling a potential last-minute run to try to keep the governorship in Democratic hands.

Even before Schwarzenegger’s entry, Feinstein called the recall election “more and more like a carnival every day.”

Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only nationally known name entering the race Wednesday: Public radio commentator and one-time Comedy Central pundit Arianna Huffington declared her candidacy as an independent.

Huffington said she decided to run because she had “a moral imperative” to “make sure that the California Republican Party is not able to use the recall to hijack the state.”

Then there’s Coleman. The candidacy of the former “Diff’rent Strokes” star hadn’t been expected. It should resonate with whatever fans of cheesy-early-’80s-sitcoms might be left out there. Coleman told Daily Variety he wouldn’t give up his candidacy, even though he believed Schwarzenegger had a lock on the campaign.

“I think the election is over,” Coleman said. “People will be coming from all around the world to cast their vote for Schwarzenegger. He’ll win.”

Coleman’s campaign includes a call for a state flat tax as well as a move toward alternative energy resources.

“I do have some valid, serious ideas and opinions, and I think there is a chance I could win,” he said.

Asked “whatchoo talkin’ ’bout,”Coleman said his platform was two-fold: “I say, people first, corporations second, and I’m the least qualified guy who could probably do the best job.”

Other famous — and infamous — candidates on the ballot include billboard bimbo Angelyne (a recent Hollywood mayoral candidate as well) and alleged comic Gallagher, whose watermelon-smashing antics wowed easily amused crowds in the 1980s.

As printed on his Web site, Gallagher’s platform includes seceding from the union and requiring the Spanish version of the Star Spangled Banner sung at 50% of all state sporting events.

(Gabriel Snyder, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)