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State GOP Relies on Big Man

Politics: California leader Jim Brulte's ability to help Bush could help boost his party's chances in legislative races.


PHILADELPHIA — Back in Sacramento, there's no doubt who the big Republican is: Jim Brulte, the 6 foot, 4 inch, 300-plus-pound state senator from Rancho Cucamonga.

Here, among Republicans gathered from across the country, the point is ever clearer. Partly by default, but also because of his prowess as a strategist, Brulte is the de facto leader of the California Republican Party.

Here's what some party leaders say about the pol Texas Gov. George W. Bush calls the "large man."

Gerald Parsky, chairman of the California delegation and a major Bush fund-raiser: "The smartest political mind we have in California."

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist: "He is one of our two or three linchpins in California. Brulte is our political brains and insightful wizard in California."

Brulte's fingerprints are apparent throughout California's delegation. He helped secure prime convention time Thursday for Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who says he is "living the American dream."

The future of the GOP in California rests in no small part on the presidential election. If Bush captures the White House, he could use the office's power over appointments and fund-raising to revitalize the struggling group.

"If Bush can win in California," Parsky said, "it will be the start of rebuilding the party in California."

But flag-waving and heady talk aside, the California Republican Party is in deep trouble. While some Republicans talk of picking up a handful of seats in November in the state Legislature--if Bush runs hard in California--they appear unlikely to seize control of either house.

"It's conceivable that we could struggle to maintain [current seats]," Brulte said.

Republicans hold only 15 of 40 state Senate seats and 32 of 80 Assembly seats heading into the November election, when half of the seats in the upper house and all the lower house seats will be decided.

And GOP fund-raising lags, while Democratic Gov. Gray Davis vacuumed up more than $8 million in the first six months of this year. He has amassed an astonishing $21.3 million for his reelection, still two years away.

"If he chooses to help Democrats, that's a huge hurdle to overcome," Brulte said. "We're clearly the underdogs in California."

Brulte is a proven fund-raiser. He took over as the state GOP's finance chairman last year when the party had a $300,000 deficit. Now it has $1.9 million in the bank.

As Senate Republican leader, Brulte is responsible for raising money for Republican candidates, and he reported in filings with the secretary of state having a political bank account of less than $600,000. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) reported raising $2.1 million for Democratic Senate candidates.

The difference in the Assembly is similarly stark. Republican leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach has $1 million, compared with $5.8 million in accounts controlled by Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks).

Perhaps the state party's biggest hurdle will come next year, with the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts. Since Democrats dominate Sacramento, they will control the process, and several congressional and legislative Republicans could lose seats in 2002.

Roll back the clock four years, to the Republican National Convention in San Diego. The California GOP was riding high. Gov. Pete Wilson was everywhere. Party elders expected then-state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren to succeed Wilson.

Lungren, reveling in the adulation, held well-attended fund-raisers and gave out Lungren-for-governor coffee mugs. Photogenic Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was but one of many officeholders with bright futures.

Wilson, now in private business, came to Philadelphia. But as Bush tries to broaden the GOP's reach, Wilson has no public role at a convention that has tried to distance itself from divisive battles such as those he fought against illegal immigration and affirmative action.

Lungren is nowhere to be seen. Quackenbush resigned amid scandal last month and quietly gave up his slot as a Republican delegate.

California still has its share of dignitaries here. Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford University political scientist, addressed the convention and is a potential chairwoman of the National Security Council under Bush.

But the party lacks candidates for statewide office in 2002. Only a few Republicans openly talk of running. Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-Victorville) is running for secretary of state. Board of Equalization member Dean Andal may run for controller.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, the GOP's lone remaining statewide officeholder, is considering running for governor. But Jones has a mere $215,000 in his campaign account--scarcely enough to run for the Assembly let alone challenge incumbent Davis.

How the Republicans will deal with Davis in 2002 is not clear. Ask Parsky who could mount a serious campaign for governor in 2002 and, with only a moment's pause, he grins and says: "Run Brulte."

Brulte, a self-described shy and private man, scoffs at the notion. He says his ambition extends to winning reelection to the state Senate in November, even as his cell phone rings and delegates from places like Vermont stop by his seat on the convention floor to renew acquaintances.

"I have a really good job and I enjoy doing it," said Brulte, who is seeking his second and final term.

Several Californians place Brulte on a short list of people from the state whom Bush might ask to join him in Washington if he wins in November. But in his hotel hospitality suite here, Brulte says between phone calls and visits: "We have to win an election. Right now, all smart Republicans are focused on Nov. 7."

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