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California and the West

State Republicans Search for Beacon Amid Gloom

Politics: National leaders shun party gathering. Delegates hope energy crisis will make Davis vulnerable in 2002.


SACRAMENTO — California Republicans gathered for their semiannual convention over the weekend, and it was almost as if the gods were smirking.

New employment figures showed the lowest jobless rate in California in 31 years. Gov. Gray Davis--the GOP's chief nemesis--announced a potential breakthrough in the prolonged electricity crisis. It even rained heavily, which meant snow in the Sierra and good news for the state's water supply.

After a disastrous decade, the California Republican Party is hovering perilously close to irrelevancy. The GOP has only one statewide officeholder left--Secretary of State Bill Jones--and a shrinking number of seats in Congress and the state Legislature.

National luminaries shunned the weekend convention. The closest President Bush came was a videotaped greeting to the about 1,500 die-hards attending the three-day meeting.

Still, there was a spirited fight for the state's party chairmanship, a promise to professionalize operations--with heavy input from the White House--and a hope that things might still go horribly wrong with the state's power crunch, making Democrat Davis vulnerable to an upstart challenge.

"The energy crisis is the best thing we have going for us right now," said Kevin Spillane, a Republican campaign strategist. Davis, who was criticized for being slow on the uptake in the power crunch, "will probably do more to serve the California Republican Party than any individual politician at this convention."

In the fight for chairman, attorney Shawn Steel of Rolling Hills beat back a strong challenge from the more moderate Brooks Firestone, a winemaker and former state assemblyman from the Central Coast.

Their contest was a rematch from two years ago, when they vied for party vice chairman, the traditional steppingstone to the top job. Firestone asserted then that the party needed fresh leadership and less focus on divisive issues such as abortion and gun control, to soften the harsh image that has turned off so many California voters. After November's shellacking, his message was, basically, I told you so.

"I stand for a change," Firestone said at a rowdy Saturday night debate between the two contestants, "a new image, a new energy, a new competence."

Steel accused Firestone of selling out party principles and said the GOP simply needs to do a better job of promoting its ideals and getting apathetic supporters to vote. "For those that are trying ways of pretending to be a bit more like Democrats, a little softer to appeal to people that have never appreciated Republicans, I say why are we here?" Steel demanded. "Why are we trying to be Republicans?"

Both pledged fealty to the Bush administration. But the White House has already installed its own overseer, John Peschong, a party veteran, to run the state GOP's day-to-day operations while a search is conducted for a permanent professional staff.

"George W. Bush is chairman of the California Republican Party," said Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP analyst and party activist for more than 30 years. "What he wants, what he says, they'll do."

The paramount job is finding a viable candidate to oppose Davis' reelection next year. There was little campaign activity over the weekend, as two of the three most-talked-about possibilities skipped the convention.

The one who did show, Jones, dutifully made the round of receptions and worked the convention floor but struck few sparks. "He's there," said Terence Faulkner, a delegate from San Francisco, treating Jones more like a place-holder than the party's nominal front-runner.

Addressing the convention Sunday, Jones criticized Davis' "socialized government model" for solving the electricity crisis, in part through state purchase of utility transmission lines. "I think all of us agree there's a private sector model that's better," Jones said, though he did not spell out his alternative.

William E. Simon Jr., a Los Angeles investment banker who recently formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for governor, was on a ski vacation with his family, forgoing the chance to introduce himself to the party's core loyalists. His presence was limited to a handout featuring father and son (his namesake is the late U.S. Treasury secretary and onetime national energy czar) and extolling Simon's "unabashed success as a philanthropist, businessman, former assistant United States attorney, social commentator, husband and father."

The potential candidate who generated the most interest is the one political analysts consider least likely to run, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were yellow "Draft the Terminator" buttons--a reference to his famous shoot-'em-up role--and a brisk trade in T-shirts reading "T2 in '02" on the front and "Hasta la vista, Davis" on the back.

Brian Todd, a 38-year-old delegate from Bakersfield who was hawking the shirts, called Schwarzenegger "the perfect candidate."

"He's everything the California Republicans need," said Todd. "He can self-fund more money than Davis could possibly raise, he's the biggest movie star in the world and he's a Republican who believes what we believe."

Other convention delegates expressed concern about fresh tabloid reports of trouble in Schwarzenegger's marriage to Maria Shriver, of the Kennedy clan. "I hope he and Maria don't break up," said Lynda Rose McMahan, 36, who suggested the Kennedy cachet could get "some crossover thing going" and lure Democrats to support Schwarzenegger.

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