Actor-turned-GOP activist Arnold Schwarzenegger is putting his high-wattage star power and money behind a ballot measure to fund after-school care, a commitment many think may be a first step toward a run for governor in 2006.

The 55-year-old former Mr. Universe, who considered and then backed away from a gubernatorial run this year, is sponsoring Proposition 49, which would dedicate $550 million a year in state money to after-school programs for elementary and junior high schools.

He has spent more than $1 million of his personal fortune, helped solicit donations from Hollywood elite, appeared in television ads and scoured the state pressing the proposition and attempting to win over newspaper editorial boards.

"There are millions of children floating around after school with no place to go and no adult supervision,'' Schwarzenegger said at a recent appearance.

Reaction has been mixed. Several California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, oppose the measure, while the state's two largest teachers unions are divided over its merits. Support in statewide polls among likely voters also has dropped from 59 percent in August to 51 percent last month.

The star of "Kindergarten Cop'' and creator of the Inner City Games and Arnold's All Stars after-school program has long supported campaigns to help keep kids off the streets.

Political analysts point out his lead role with Proposition 49 can also build his political resume and connect his image to public policy instead of violence-laden action flicks.

"There's a very good chance this is an audition for a run for the governorship in four years,'' said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Schwarzenegger has surrounded himself with political advisers who worked with former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, which has further fueled speculation about a 2006 campaign.

Proof of his ability to enrapture crowds came Thursday as he spoke to a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the audience reveled in his good-natured joking and familiar Austrian accent, and casually called him Arnold during a question-and-answer session.

He joked when asked if he would run for governor in 2006, saying: "This is a decision that I leave to the Almighty — my wife Maria,'' referring to television journalist Maria Shriver, a niece of Democratic former President John F. Kennedy.

Some Republicans hope Schwarzenegger can follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and pull them from a power slump that has allowed Democrats to take control of the Legislature and all but one statewide office.

"The state has been receptive to celebrity candidates in the past. [Schwarzenegger] has a ways to go, because most people obviously remember him from his movie roles,'' Pitney said. "But this is a good way of establishing a new identity.''

If approved, Proposition 49 would direct general fund dollars to public elementary, middle and junior high schools, including charter schools, for before- and after-school programs providing tutoring, homework assistance and other activities.

Opposition groups, who have been heavily outspent by Schwarzenegger's effort, say the plan doesn't guarantee any new money to pay for programs. As a result, current education programs would suffer.

California faced a $23.6 billion budget deficit this year.

"It's very likely that Proposition 49 could hurt more kids than it could help,'' said League of Women Voters spokesman Eric Wooten. "We'll fully fund this one after-school program but we are going to cut other programs to do it.''

Schwarzenegger and others counter that the money dedicated to the program would be spent on something proven to reduce juvenile crime and increase school performance.