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Arnold Counts On the Maria Factor

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Growing up as a member of a political dynasty, Maria Shriver was sure of one thing — she didn’t want to start one of her own. “I knew what was involved in a political campaign,” she told Oprah Winfrey when she and husband Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped by her show Sept. 15. “And I tried to find somebody who would take me as far away from the political world as I possibly could.”

So much for that. With the California recall election just days away, Schwarzenegger, 56, has emerged as the frontrunner in the race to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 7. A Los Angeles Times poll of likely voters published Tuesday shows that 56 percent of voters are in favor of recalling Davis, and 40 percent plan to cast their vote for the action star. His closest competition is Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, with 32 percent.

During Shriver’s first campaign appearance, however, it was easy to see why she was so reticent. After showing up to register voters at a Natomas, Calif., Wal-Mart, she was mobbed by 100 union protesters and forced to hightail it in an SUV. “I can’t think of a worse place she could have been,” says Joe Cerrell, a Democratic campaign adviser to Shriver’s uncle, John F. Kennedy.

Since that stumble, Shriver, 47, has hit her political stride — stumping by her husband’s side and launching her own “Remarkable Woman Tour” to shore up his shaky support among female voters. “Having gone through (the protest) she forged on stronger than ever,” says Shriver’s friend, socialite Wanda McDaniel Ruddy. “It’s the Maria Shriver way.”

Kennedy insiders say Shriver tapped family connections to prep Arnold on such issues as the environment, despite party differences. “Everyone believes she’ll turn him around,” quips cousin Douglas Kennedy, a Fox News reporter.

For her part, Shriver says her slow start on the trail had to do with children Katherine, 13, Christina, 12, Patrick, 10, and Christopher, 6, who had just started school. She still limits her schedule to ensure she sleeps at the family’s Santa Monica mansion every night.

“This whole thing has been designed to get me home for carpool,” she says. Although she’s taken an extended leave from her job at NBC News, Shriver hasn’t focused on a potential new role: as California’s first lady. “She’s very one-day-at-a-time,” says Ruddy.

But she doesn’t regret her belated foray into the family business. “I learned … growing up, that you have to support people with their dreams,” she told Oprah. “And once they go, you’ve got to go with them 100 percent.”