Chris Carlson, Associated Press
Gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger greets supporters in Costa Mesa, Calif. The actor is beginning a statewide bus tour in his bid to replace Gov. Gray Davis.

SAN DIEGO — Faced with new allegations of sexual misconduct, Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged on Thursday that "wherever there is smoke there is fire" and apologized for having "behaved badly sometimes" toward women.

Schwarzenegger, who has been surging in the polls in California's recall election, issued the apology here at the beginning of a statewide bus tour. The six-bus tour, with the international media in tow, is part of the actor's final push to replace Gov. Gray Davis.

It was the first time during the extraordinary recall campaign that the actor and former bodybuilder expressed remorse for sexual indiscretions, having previously downplayed allegations of groping and mistreatment of women as exaggerations, mistruths or provocations.

"Yes it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets," Schwarzenegger said, "and I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful but now I recognize that I have offended people. And to those people that I have offended I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I'm trying to do."

The announcement came in response to a front-page Los Angeles Times article Thursday about six women who said that they were the victims of unwanted sexual advances by Schwarzenegger when they came into contact with him on movie sets, studio offices and a gymnasium.

Schwarzenegger's attitude toward women has been an issue since the start of his campaign. But the new allegations — and Schwarzenegger's reply — set off a maelstrom of protest from Schwarzenegger's critics, including women's groups, Democrats, and Arianna Huffington, who dropped out of the race this week but clashed repeatedly with Schwarzenegger during a debate last week.

"I consider his campaign a very expensively produced masquerade, and the question is will the mask be removed before the election or after," Huffington said. "I believe what this story is going to do, is really bring to question this big issue of trust and credibility. If his word and image are consistently proven to be false, he doesn't have a leg to stand on."

According to the Los Angeles Times, three of the women said Schwarzenegger grabbed their breasts. Another said he groped her and tried to strip off her bikini in a hotel elevator. The sixth said Schwarzenegger pulled her to his lap and asked if she was experienced in a particular sexual act.

The allegations covered a 25-year period, ending in 2000.

Though some of the claims had been published elsewhere, including in an article in Premier magazine in 2001, the Los Angeles Times account was exhaustive and included fresh details of the complaints. Two of the women were identified by name. In the Premier story, a lawyer for Schwarzenegger was quoted accusing one of the women of creating an "outrageous fabrication."

In making his apology Thursday, Schwarzenegger denounced the Los Angeles Times article as "trash politics" and did not admit to any of the specific claims made by the six women. "A lot of those that you see in the stories is not true, but at the same time I have to tell you that I always say that wherever there is smoke there is fire," he said. "That is true."

Until now, allegations of sexual misconduct involving Schwarzenegger have held little sway with voters. But the issue has shadowed the campaign since day one. In announcing his candidacy on Aug. 6 on the NBC Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Schwarzenegger was the first to raise the subject.

"I know they're going to throw everything at me, and they're going to, you know, say that I have no experience and that I'm a womanizer and that I'm a terrible, terrible guy," Schwarzenegger said. "And all this kind of things is going to come my way."

Last month, when stories began to surface about an interview he had given in 1977 to Oui magazine, in which he bragged about engaging in group sex and talked about the benefits of drugs and sex before bodybuilding competitions, Schwarzenegger seemed to have been caught off guard. He changed his explanation over the course of two days.

When first asked about the interview on a talk radio show in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger chuckled, saying he "never lived my life to be a politician," adding, "Obviously, I've made statements that were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous and all those things, because that's the way I always was."

The next day at a press conference, he backtracked. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he told reporters. "I have no memory of any of the articles I did 20 or 30 years ago."

Later, he said that he made up the episodes to help promote a documentary about his life and to advance his sport.

"Remember, there were only a few hundred gymnasiums in America at the time when I came over here," Schwarzenegger said on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews on Sept. 3. "Now there are hundreds of thousands."

The decision Thursday to acknowledge and apologize was a calculated move by Schwarzenegger's campaign to prevent the latest claims from derailing the last weekend of the recall race, aides said. Recent polls have shown Schwarzenegger emerging as the favorite to win next Tuesday's election, having even picked up support among women.

But even as Schwarzenegger was issuing his apology, some of his aides and political allies were taking a different tack, denouncing the Los Angeles Times story and questioning the credibility of the women interviewed.

"I think the behavior of the L.A. Times has been unbecoming of a newspaper," Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican who bankrolled the recall signature gathering, said in a radio interview from the Schwarzenegger bus convoy. "They have never supported this effort. They have used dozens of reporters to constantly find new and creative ways to be disingenuous about the recall and anyone who stood up for it."

Democrats and women's groups seized the issue, holding news conferences and declaring Schwarzenegger unfit to govern. And as Schwarzenegger's six-bus convey rolled from San Diego to Costa Mesa to San Bernadino to Los Angeles, protesters stole some of his thunder.

At one stop, Gail Escobar, a waitress at a hotel in Santa Monica claimed that 25 years ago Schwarzenegger had threatened to rape her. It was impossible to verify the allegation by Escobar, who was joined by a representative with the AFL-CIO, the large labor organization backing Davis. Nonetheless, the woman was mobbed by perhaps 200 reporters.

Schwarzenegger was not without his defenders. Some yelled "Lesbian," others shouted "Who paid you?" and still others hollered "Liar, liar" at Escobar. For his part Schwarzenegger tried to stay above the fray, preaching about a hemorrhaging budget, jobs leaving the state and a burdensome car tax.

In one campaign stunt in Costa Mesa, Schwarzenegger dropped a wrecking ball on an automobile in protest of a 300 percent hike in vehicle license fee.

With nearly 200 reporters from around the world traveling with Schwarzenegger and two unsanctioned busloads of lesser candidates hounding him, his campaign staff tried to tamp down a story that was being carried live to a mass audience well beyond the borders of California.

"Some of the things in the article are not true," said Todd Harris, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger. "Some are and he's apologized for that. He's addressed it directly and we're going to move on."

Harris and other Republicans said they were curious about the timing of the article, criticizing Davis but stopping short of linking him to it. The Los Angles Times stated that none of the women had been identified by Schwarzenegger's rivals in the recall contest, and Davis campaign officials Thursday denied any involvement.