NEWPORT BEACH — Expressing anger at President Bush and Gov. Pete Wilson--but more vehemently at Wilson--the conservative California Republican Assembly voted overwhelmingly Sunday to support commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in the state's June 2 presidential primary.
However, the 3,500-member grass-roots volunteer organization, the largest within the California GOP, decided not to give Buchanan a formal endorsement because they expect Bush to win renomination.
"He will be the next President unless we do something really silly and let the Democrats get in," said Doc Burch, an Antelope Valley resident who was hissed and booed by some as he put Bush's name in nomination at the group's election-year endorsement convention
California Republican Assembly past President Stephen Frank of Simi Valley urged delegates: "Vote with your heart today, but in November, vote with your head."
If anything is threatening Bush's chances in California, it is Wilson, who has plunged the Bush campaign here into "complete turmoil and disarray," the delegates were told.
Greg Hardcastle of Sacramento, chairman of a convention "fact-finding committee," claimed that Wilson had rejected the Bush campaign's designee to run the Bush effort in California and was insisting on one of Wilson's political aides for the job.
"This is an example of another incredibly arrogant power grab by the governor to reshape the Republican Party in California, and indeed the nation, in his own image and for his future ambition," Hardcastle said.
Dan Schnur, a Wilson aide, denied that the governor had vetoed Washington's choice for a California campaign director. He said Bush's California leadership had been worked out by Wilson and Bush campaign manager Robert S. Teeter and will be announced this week.
"The governor and Teeter agreed that Californians with experience running and winning campaigns in California would represent the best choice for the presidential campaign out here," Schnur said.
Hardcastle said that California Republican Assembly leaders were told that they could be involved in the selection of delegates to the Republican National Convention in Houston this summer only if they agreed to stop being critical of Wilson.
"Who wants to go to Houston in the month of August anyway?" Hardcastle quipped. "Who was the yahoo who chose that site?"
Hardcastle knows that Houston is Bush's official home, and that Houston was probably chosen because that was what Bush wanted.
The straw vote supported Buchanan over Bush 134 to 48 with nine abstentions. The California Republican Party governing body favored Bush by about 9 to 1 in a straw vote at its convention in late January. Buchanan forces managed to scuttle a bungled attempt to formally endorse Bush.
Buchanan, who energized convention delegates with a fiery speech Friday night, released a statement from Milwaukee on Sunday saying: "We intend to build on this overwhelming support from CRA and other Republicans to carry us to victory in the California primary."
Wilson and the Republican right in California have warred for years. Schnur derided the group as being too small "to fill a smoke-filled room."
Frank, the group's past president, claimed that attendance last weekend was the largest in his memory, with 92 of 100 statewide chapters represented. Frank said the group's anti-abortion, anti-gay views would be represented by as many as 60% of GOP voters in June.
Last week, however, Mervin Field, founder of the California Poll, estimated that the far conservative right accounts for about 15% of the state's registered Republicans. California Republican Assembly support can be important, however, in competitive primary elections and special elections.
Also Sunday, the group endorsed Los Angeles political commentator Bruce Herschensohn by acclamation for the six-year Senate seat in California this year. The group endorsed Rep. William E. Dannemeyer of Fullerton for the final two years of the Senate term won by Wilson in 1988. When Wilson resigned from the Senate to become governor, he appointed GOP moderate John Seymour to the Senate to fill the term.
Seymour received only two votes from California Republican Assembly delegates. Dannemeyer won with 139 votes to 45 for William Allen, a professor from Claremont.
When he came forth to nominate Bush, Burch joked: "Is this kind of like watching your mother-in-law go over the cliff in your new Cadillac, or what?"
Burch defended Bush as "the most faithful vice president in the country's history" under Ronald Reagan, a longtime hero of the group. He credited Bush with changing his position on abortion and threatening to veto any legislation that would expand conditions under which abortions could be obtained. "We need a man like that," Burch said.