SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Maria Shriver, a member of a famously Democratic family, pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot here Monday afternoon in her first solo campaign appearance on behalf of her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who wants to be governor of California.
But it did not turn out as intended. Shriver was shouted down by a score of organized union members protesting the recall election and Wal-Mart's labor policies. After just five minutes, she was hustled into a black sport utility vehicle and driven away.
Before leaving, Shriver told reporters "like many women, I'm just trying to juggle helping my husband and my four children."
Her trip had larger ambitions than merely adding a few dozen voters to the rolls and issuing a bland statement of support for her husband. She is trying to soften Schwarzenegger's image and address a problem that is clouding his prospects.
Like virtually every Republican candidate in California for more than a decade, Schwarzenegger faces a gender gap among voters, with women showing more support for Democrats.
But his career as a professional bodybuilder and then as a star in a succession of violent movies, coupled with accounts of boorish behavior and chauvinistic comments about women, are making the problem worse for him. The situation has turned off thousands of potential female supporters, analysts here say.
Among the leading candidates in the recall race, Schwarzenegger holds a small edge among potential male voters over his current chief competitor, Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante, a Democrat, public and private polls show.
But among women, Schwarzenegger is trailing Bustamante by more than 10 points in independent polls and private surveys commissioned by the candidates.
Schwarzenegger has taken positions on some social issues that tend to attract votes from women, supporting abortion rights, some gun controls and environmental protections.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant in Los Angeles, said that any Republican candidate began at a disadvantage in California because of the marked tendency for women to vote Democratic in this state, which has two women who are Democratic U.S. senators.
Schwarzenegger's macho image compounds the problem, he said. "Look at the movies he made, look at his career, look at the statements he's made — and he's a Republican," Hoffenblum said. "Of course he has a woman problem."
The Schwarzenegger campaign recognizes its weakness among women voters, and the increased visibility of Shriver, 47, is part of the answer, aides said.
One senior adviser said that partly by chance and partly by design the early weeks of the Schwarzenegger campaign had been spent addressing economic and fiscal issues, which tend to engage men more than women. The campaign has also sought to solidify support among Republicans and right-leaning independents by appearing frequently on conservative talk-radio programs, another move that has alienated many women.
But now the campaign is pivoting to broaden its base and appeal to women, and Shriver is the vanguard of that effort. The daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the niece of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, Shriver is a member of perhaps the most famous Democratic family in America. The Wal-Mart appearance on Monday was the beginning of a relatively heavy schedule of solo campaign appearances over the next several weeks, Schwarzenegger aides said.
Shriver gave a preview of her role in the campaign on Friday night when she helped her husband open his headquarters in Santa Monica, as about 100 women protested outside over Schwarzenegger's alleged hostility to women.
"If you are a Democrat, you are welcome here," she told the volunteers crowded into the headquarters. "If I can work here, you can work here."
Then she offered a personal testimonial to her husband.
"He's one of the most gracious, supportive, open-minded men I have ever met," Shriver said. "I've known him since I was 21 years old, and I know I would not be where I am today — in my career, as a woman — without his support."
Schwarzenegger's attitudes toward women became an issue when comments he had made in years past surfaced after he declared his candidacy last month. In an interview with the now-defunct Oui magazine, he bragged about engaging in group sex and talked about the benefits of sex before bodybuilding competitions. Schwarzenegger said he made up those episodes to promote a documentary about his life and to advance his sport.
An article in Premier magazine in March 2001 said that the actor had groped women on movie lots and during interviews. Schwarzenegger said those episodes never occurred.
And an article in Entertainment Weekly in July quoted the actor discussing his new movie, Terminator 3, which he said he enjoyed because, "How many times do you get away with taking a woman and burying her face in a toilet bowl?"
Women's groups and Democratic officials have seized upon these remarks to accuse Schwarzenegger of predatory sexual behavior and disrespect for women.
Responding to questions about these statements, Schwarzenegger said last week that he had "the utmost respect for women."
"Did I say crazy things? You are absolutely correct. It was the '70s and we promoted body-building. When we tried to get headlines," Schwarzenegger said of the comments in the Oui interview. "We tried to get attention and headlines and I would say things that many times were exaggerated and untrue, just to get the headlines. But the fact of the matter is, you've got to forget about the '70s. I was a different person then."
He did not address the more recent articles, but one of his advisers, Mike Murphy, dismissed complaints about them as "background noise" to the campaign.
Outside the Wal-Mart on Monday, Schwarzenegger got mixed reviews from women waiting to see Shriver.
Kerry Wittlake, 28, a married mother of two, said, "I think he's the perfect candidate. I like that he's a social Democrat but has the Republican financial views." She said of Schwarzenegger's alleged indiscretions, "It doesn't matter. Everyone has a skeleton in their past."
Juana Olivares, 44, a Mexican-American office assistant in Sacramento, said she was uneasy not about Schwarzenegger's attitude toward women, but about his views on immigration.
"I admire Maria a lot because of all her Kennedy family, but not enough to vote for him," Olivares said. "He doesn't have a humane attitude toward immigrants. We're a little afraid that he's going to change things and hurt us."