Just hours before the start of the historic recall election on Tuesday, the Republican had a comfortable lead in the race to replace embattled Governor Gray Davis, a poll said, despite narrowing support for sacking Davis.

The action star turned politician appeared at a rally in San
Jose, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, backed by a crowd of women and with his famous wife, Maria Shriver, at his side to help limit damage to his campaign.

The star of the Terminator film series offered his standard pledges to clean house and re-energise the state if he won the special election, which is expected to see a record turnout of California's 15 million registered voters.

"Gray Davis has terminated jobs, Gray Davis has terminated dreams, Gray Davis has terminated opportunity and now it's time to terminate Gray Davis," he said.

Davis fights back

Schwarzenegger's closest rival for the job, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, was also campaigning, flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco to rally voters.

California's governor doomed to
defeat according to opinion polls

And while Schwarzenegger and Bustamante took to the air, Davis, blamed by opponents for presiding over the state's sharp economic decline, took to the airwaves in his desperate fight to keep his job.

He appeared on all of the major network morning shows, saying he had seen a surge in support in the last two days as voters mull the prospect of an action star as the state's chief executive.

"I think they're now digesting that to see whether they actually want him as governor," he said on CBS. Former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and megastar Barbara Streisand all recorded phone messages encouraging Democrats to vote. Notably absent from the list was Davis himself.

Allegations

Schwarzenegger avoided mention the lingering allegations that he groped and humiliated colleagues over his 30-year Hollywood career. But in a statement, he said a claim issued on Monday that he grabbed a movie stand-in and photographed her bare breasts despite protests was "not factually correct".

He also included a statement from a man who said he took the picture himself, at the woman's behest, when Schwarzenegger was not present. Schwarzenegger admitted, however, making lewd statements about photographs posted on that movie set.

But outraged women's groups continued their daily protests at Schwarzenegger's campaign appearances. They held a "Wake-up California Vigil" outside a prominent Jewish organization in Los Angeles, after reports that a young Schwarzenegger expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler - which he has adamantly denied.

A poll released on Sunday by news media groups said Davis would be sacked by 54% of voters and that 37% would replace him with Schwarzenegger, down from 40% in two earlier polls last week. Bustamante tailed with 29% of votes on Sunday.