L O S A N G E L E S, Oct. 8 — Californians banished Gov. Gray Davis just 11 months into his second term and overwhelmingly elected action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him Tuesday — a Hollywood ending to one of the most extraordinary political melodramas in the nation's history.
"I will not fail you, I will not disappoint you, and I will not let you down," the victorious actor vowed.
"Tonight, the voters did decide it's time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment," Davis said in conceding. He pledged to work for a smooth transition.
"I'm calling on everyone … to put the chaos and division of the recall behind us and do what's right for this great state of California."
Schwarzenegger was introduced to a delirious crowd at his campaign headquarters by Jay Leno, on whose late-night show he announced his candidacy in August.
"Everything I have is because of California," Schwarzenegger said, in claiming victory. "I came here with absolutely nothing, and California has given me absolutely everything. And today, California has given me the greatest gift of all — you have given me your trust by voting for me."
To the victor goes a spoiled American paradise — a state mired in economic troubles, awash with deficits, now governed by a Republican chief executive with no political experience and a Democratic legislature.
Partial returns early today showed the recall favored by 3,758,990 voters, or 53.7 percent, and opposed by 3,246,412, or 46.3 percent.
Among the replacement candidates, Schwarzenegger was ahead with 3,198,058, or 47.8 percent of the vote; Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante had 2,181,952, or 32.6 percent; Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock had 881,744 votes, or 13.2 percent; and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo had 188,479 votes, or 2.9 percent.
"This is a great day for California. … In response to a common danger, the people of California rose to their duties and ordered a new direction for our state," McClintock said in conceding.
Schwarzenegger prevailed despite a flurry of negative publicity in the campaign's final days, surviving allegations that he had groped women and accusations that as a young man he expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler.
The 56-year-old Austrian immigrant — husband of television journalist Maria Shriver — finds himself in charge of the nation's most populated state with an economy surpassed by only five countries. He takes office as soon as the election results are certified, no later than Nov. 15, and will serve out the final three years of Davis' term.
Voters faced two questions — whether to recall Davis, and who among the other candidates should replace him if he was removed. They chose to get rid of the incumbent and put Schwarzenegger in his place.
Exit polling explained why: Many Hispanics and union members — two key groups in Davis' past electoral successes — deserted him as he suffered extraordinarily low job approval ratings amid widespread voter discontent about the state's economy.
Davis won election in 1998 with 70 percent support from Hispanics and a similar percentage of voters from union households, and he got about 65 percent of both groups in his re-election last year. But in the recall, about half of Hispanics and of voters with union members in their households voted to recall Davis, according to voter surveys conducted for The Associated Press and other news organizations by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Seven in 10 voters disapproved of how Davis was handling his job. Nearly half of all voters strongly disapproved, and among them, nine in 10 voted for the recall and seven in 10 voted for Schwarzenegger, the exit poll found.
Long lines were reported at polling places through the day. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley estimated turnout between 65 and 70 percent and called it the one of the smoothest statewide elections in 20 years. The turnout would be the highest percentage to vote in a California gubernatorial election since 1982.
Re-elected last year with less than 50 percent of the vote, Davis fell victim to a groundswell of discontent in a state that has struggled with its perilous financial condition.
As colorless as his name, Davis was also known as a canny politician with sharp elbows. Once chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, he rose through the political ranks as a state assemblyman, controller and lieutenant governor, before becoming governor in 1999.
By contrast, Schwarzenegger's political inexperience seemed a virtue to many voters.
The actor's improbable rise to political power played out before a rapt international audience.
The campaign included a parade of bit players among the 135 candidates, including Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, former child actor Gary Coleman, a publicity-hungry porn actress who wanted to tax breast implants and an artist who dressed in all blue and described his candidacy as the ultimate piece of performance art.
The cast of characters and outsized ballot gave the campaign a carnival-like atmosphere and provided late-night comics with a stream of material.
But to many Californians, it was serious business.
"I'm horrified at the thought that Schwarzenegger can be our governor," said Gretchen Purser, 25, of Berkeley, who voted against recall. "I'm sick of Republicans trying to take over the state."
Ed Troupe, 69, of Thousand Oaks, voted yes for recall and for Schwarzenegger. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "Gray Davis is one of the dirtiest politicians I've ever encountered."
Though Schwarzenegger held a commanding lead over his rivals going into the final week, his campaign was shaken by allegations published in The Los Angeles Times just days before the election from six women who said he groped them or made unwanted sexual advances. Allegations continued to surface over the weekend, and by election day a total of 16 women had come forward.
Schwarzenegger also was confronted with reports that he had praised Hitler as a young man — accusations he disputed.
Responding to the sexual misconduct charges, Schwarzenegger acknowledged he had "behaved badly sometimes." But he attacked the newspaper and some of his accusers for what he called a last-minute effort to derail his candidacy.
Voters also rejected Proposition 54, a contentious initiative that would have banned state and local governments from tracking race in everything from preschools to police work. Voters across the racial spectrum rejected the measure, according to exit polling.
They also rejected another proposition dedicating money to public works projects.
Davis' plight reverberated across the nation, to the 18 other states that have initiative, referendum or recall provisions. If the state that brought us right-on-red is again a pioneer, perpetual campaigns could become common.
Davis stood to become only the second governor in U.S. history to be recalled, after North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921. The cost of the election to California taxpayers was estimated at $66 million.
The victor will face daunting problems, including an ailing economy, a budget deficit now estimated at $8 billion and a tax-and-spending system many believe needs serious reform.
The recall movement was launched in February by grass-roots activists, angered over the state's $38 billion budget deficit and the prospect of rising taxes. Within months, the state vehicle license fee was tripled and student fees at state colleges and universities went up 30 percent to 40 percent.
The movement really took off when Darrell Issa, a conservative congressman from San Diego County, poured $1.7 million of his fortune into the campaign to get the measure on the ballot.
Criticism of Davis mounted, with recall proponents claiming he squandered the state's $10 billion surplus in 2000 and lied to voters last fall when he was running for re-election to conceal the dire state of the economy. He also was accused of being slow to respond to the state's energy crisis in 2001 and presiding over a "pay to play" system that rewarded lobbyists and special interests for hefty campaign contributions.
Schwarzenegger cast himself as an outsider — he showed up at the Capitol on Sunday holding a broom to "clean house" — and claimed to be beholden to no special interests, even though he, too, accepted large campaign contributions from developers and major business interests.
Democrats portrayed the recall as part of a nationwide GOP power grab and sought to keep other Democrats off the ballot. But party unity was shattered when Bustamante, a moderate from the agriculture-rich Central Valley with a history of chilly relations with his boss, abandoned his pledge not to run. The first Hispanic elected to statewide office in more than 120 years, Bustamante was seeking to become California's first Hispanic governor since Romualdo Pacheco in 1875.
But it was Schwarzenegger who was the overpowering presence, even without the 22-inch biceps that made him Mr. Universe. Other GOP candidates such as businessman Bill Simon, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Issa dropped out of the race, with Simon and Issa endorsing Schwarzenegger.
Tracked by national and international media, the Austrian immigrant found frenzied crowds wherever he went; flashing an iridescent smile, he tossed campaign T-shirts into adoring throngs. He raised at least $21.5 million for the race, some $10 million of which came from his own pocket (a sum that represented about a third of his salary for the movie Terminator 3).
All together, the candidates and the pro- and anti-recall campaigns raised at least $75 million.
The election was nearly derailed last month when a three-judge federal appeals court panel ordered the balloting postponed — perhaps until spring — because some counties planned to use the punch-card ballots that caused the recount mess in Florida in 2000. The court said tens of thousands of votes could go uncounted. But days later, an 11-judge panel of the same court unanimously ruled the election could go forward, saying too much time and money already had been spent on the election to stop it now.
While the field of replacement candidates included such entertaining players as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and a porn actress who wanted to tax breast implants, to many Californians, it was serious business.