By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 18, 2003 12:37 PM

Arnold Schwarzenegger is clearly serious about a possible California gubernatorial bid, with the “Terminator 3” star displaying some formidable political fundraising skills, the Associated Press reports.

Schwarzenegger, 55, has been the center of speculation — much of it fueled by himself — that he is planning to run as a Republican replacement for current Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who may face a recall campaign.

In two “T-3” movie premiere events last month, Schwarzenegger helped raise $421,000 to erase campaign debts from an after-school program initiative he championed. Political observers suggest that Schwarzenegger is setting himself up to launch a political crusade with a clean slate.

“If there were a looming campaign debt, that might be a distraction from a gubernatorial campaign. By settling the debt, he removes the distraction and demonstrates his fund-raising ability,” John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, tells AP.

George Gorton, Schwarzenegger’s political adviser and the campaign manager of his education initiative, said that while none of the money collected at last month’s two “Terminator 3” fund-raising premieres will go to the recall effort or a potential Schwarzenegger campaign, he did express delight with Schwarzenegger’s fast fundraising ability.

“I’ve never seen so many people anxious to give money,” Gorton said.

Despite Gorton’s optimism, in a poll this week, Schwarzenegger placed second among five possible Davis opponents, receiving 15 percent of the votes. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan finished the strongest, with 21 percent.