SAN DIEGO -- Confronted with fresh allegations that he groped women, Arnold Schwarzenegger apologized Thursday for having "behaved badly sometimes" and pleaded with voters just days before California's recall election for the chance to show that he has changed.
The admission came just as the action hero appeared to be picking up steam as the front-runner to replace Gov. Gray Davis in Tuesday's historic election.
It was followed hours later by a report aired on ABC News that Schwarzenegger told an interviewer during the filming of the bodybuilding documentary "Pumping Iron" in 1975 he admired Adolf Hitler. The New York Times also reported a similar account on its Web site.
Schwarzenegger, with wife Maria Shriver at his side, told a late-night news conference at Los Angeles' Century Plaza Hotel that he didn't recall making the reported Hitler remarks.
"I don't remember any of those comments because I always despise everything that Hitler stood for," Schwarzenegger said, calling Hitler a "disgusting villain."
"I cannot imagine," he said when asked if he could have made the remarks attributed to him.
Asked about the new allegations of groping against her husband, Shriver referred to his remarks earlier in the day in San Diego.
"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.
Shriver said she has met many women signing on to her husband's campaign.
"I have been so encouraged by their passion for his candidacy, their passion for change and their belief in him," she said."
Having to face such allegations "is one of the reasons that really good people don't want to go into politics anymore," Shriver added.
The apology before hundreds of supporters at the San Diego Convention Center came hours after the Los Angeles Times reported the allegations of six women who accused Schwarzenegger of sexually harassing and groping them in incidents that occurred between 1975 and 2000.
Three of the women told the Times that Schwarzenegger groped their breasts. One said he tried to take her bathing suit off in a hotel elevator, and another said he put his hand up her skirt and grabbed her buttocks. Still another said he pulled her on his lap and asked if she ever had a particular sex act performed on her.
Schwarzenegger, taking the stage to chants of "Arnold, Arnold," immediately addressed the issue.
"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," he said.
"Those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because that's not what I'm trying to do," he added.
From this point on, Schwarzenegger said, he would prove he is a "champion for the women." As he made that pledge, the crowd interrupted him with cheers.
After his apology and brief campaign remarks, Schwarzenegger jumped on a bus parked inside the convention hall and left on a four-day campaign blitz around the state.
Reaction to the announcement was swift, with supporters defending the actor for being candid, while critics said his apology amounted to too little too late.
"All is not forgiven. He's got a pattern of this for 30 years, it doesn't just go away," said Karen Pomer, a spokeswoman for the women's group CodePink.
What impact the admission would have on Schwarzenegger's campaign remained to be seen, but Barbara O'Connor, a professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento, predicted it wouldn't be good.
"I think the evidence is very damning," O'Connor said. "The American people are fairly forgiving but they don't like to be lied to. This speaks to character. To 'fess up only after you're caught, we don't even allow our teenagers to do that."
In a telephone conference call with reporters Thursday, representatives of several women's organizations, including California NOW, said they would call upon the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to launch a criminal investigation into the allegations contained in the Times.
The revelation did not stop Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., from issuing an endorsement of Schwarzenegger's candidacy.
"I have spent much of my career fighting against the corrupting influence of special interest money in politics. When Arnold becomes governor I hope to have a powerful ally in that fight," McCain said in a statement.
Meanwhile, ABC reported that it had obtained a copy 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."
The author of the book proposal, "Pumping Iron" director George Butler, told the network the quotes needed to be seen in context to be understood, adding he never heard Schwarzenegger make an anti-Semitic remark.
A campaign spokesman, Sean Walsh, called the story "the worst kind of political smear, the worst."
At his first campaign stop after the apology, in Costa Mesa, Schwarzenegger was greeted by a handful of protesters holding signs saying, "Women Demand Respect" and "Keep Your Hands Off California's Women." His supporters surrounded them and tried to prevent people from seeing the signs.
"What we saw in the L.A. Times today was not an attack on Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was an attack on every single one of us that wants to take back California," said Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, a Schwarzenegger supporter.
Schwarzenegger's alleged past indiscretions have been an issue in the campaign since he announced his bid to replace Davis if the governor is recalled. Much of the controversy has surrounded a 1977 interview in Oui magazine in which Schwarzenegger talked about engaging in group sex.
The actor and former world bodybuilding champion has previously said he didn't remember that interview and that, in any case, he often exaggerated in those days to promote his sport and his fledgling movie career.
After Premiere magazine raised allegations of boorish behavior toward women in 2001, several colleagues came to Schwarzenegger's defense, including Linda Hamilton, who appeared opposite him in two "Terminator" films, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who played his wife in "True Lies."
"Arnold is a perfect gentleman and a devoted family man," Curtis said at the time.
Neither immediately returned calls for comment Thursday.
Julie Vandermost, president of the California Women's Leadership Association, an Orange County-based Republican group that endorsed Schwarzenegger, said she was pleased the actor was truthful, adding his admission doesn't mean he's not a worthy candidate for governor.
"I don't expect Schwarzenegger to be groping people in Sacramento," she said.
The candidate dismissed the Times story as "trash politics" and said much of it was not true.
"But at the same time, I have to tell you that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. That is true," he said.
The newspaper 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 have brought legal action against Schwarzenegger, the newspaper said.
Associated Press Writers Beth Fouhy and Alexandria Sage contributed to this story.