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GOP May Get Push to Center

Schwarzenegger could reposition a state party dominated by its right wing, analysts say.

October 13, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

With his triumph in the recall race, Arnold Schwarzenegger restored the California Republican Party to power 11 months after its worst electoral defeat in 120 years.

Now, as standard-bearer of a suddenly revitalized GOP, the moderate governor-elect could choose to draw on his vast reservoir of political capital to broaden his party's appeal beyond its conservative base, strategists say.

Most immediately, he has an opportunity to influence the party's battle to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in November 2004. More important for his own political future, Schwarzenegger has a chance to reshape the Legislature's Republican minority, now dominated by conservatives, and perhaps expand it.

The depth of Schwarzenegger's interest in remaking the state party in his own ideological image remains to be seen. With less than five weeks to prepare his takeover of a state that's a fiscal shambles, he has focused initially on building his administration, putting off decisions on how to wield his extraordinary political clout.

"All the attention is on forming a government right now," Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said.

On Sunday, another aide said it was uncertain if Schwarzenegger would join President Bush on Wednesday at fund-raisers in Fresno and Riverside for the president's reelection campaign, but the two are likely to meet before Bush leaves Thursday for Japan.

With or without Schwarzenegger's help, the Bush campaign is sure to be richly endowed, but for California Republicans the incoming governor's power to raise huge sums of money marks a major turnaround.

Since Republican Gov. Pete Wilson left office nearly five years ago, the California GOP has struggled to match the Democrats' robust collection of campaign money. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of the state's congressional delegation. In November, Democrats won every statewide office on the ballot for the first time since 1882.

Now that Schwarzenegger has ended the GOP's losing streak, many Republicans hope his victory will attract more money to the party and make it more competitive, starting with next year's campaign against Boxer.

"It makes a huge difference, and it's going to make it much easier to win the Senate race," said former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a potential candidate for Boxer's seat.

Before the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Jones said, Republican donors had been "very downcast," undermining the party's attempted comeback.

"There's this myth that Republicans can't win here," said Bush campaign advisor Mindy Tucker, a counselor to the state party. "That myth was disproved the other night" by Schwarzenegger's triumph.

But that ignores the unique circumstances of Schwarzenegger's victory. The world-famous movie star was able to leap over the fund-raising difficulties and unfamiliarity that bedevil most candidates in big races. He was running against a governor who had come to personify voters' anger at status quo politics.

In a quick recall race that bypassed party nominations, Schwarzenegger was able to capture the governorship with no initial vetting in a Republican primary, often a high hurdle for moderates. Though his profile as a fiscal conservative is popular among Republicans, his liberal stands on abortion, gun control and gay rights would have dampened his appeal in a primary.

There is an additional barrier to any effort to influence the Senate or upcoming legislative races: The deadlines for candidates to file for those races occur within weeks, just as Schwarzenegger is putting together his budget.

For years, Republicans have tended to nominate top-of-the-ticket candidates well to the right of most Californians, most recently businessman Bill Simon Jr. for governor in 2002 and then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in 1998. Their conservative stands on social issues made prime targets for Democratic attacks. In the recall, however, most conservatives bypassed one of their own on the ballot -- state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks -- and went with Schwarzenegger, the candidate more likely to win.

"This party for several election cycles has been bent on self-destruction," said Mark Chapin Johnson of Tustin, a major Republican donor who backs moderates. "Sanity is starting to prevail."

But Boxer campaign strategist Roy Behr said Republicans were deluding themselves to think that Schwarzenegger's victory would make the party any more likely to nominate a moderate for the Senate race.

"Republican donors are going to be interested in supporting candidates who can win, and the Republican primary process is not going to produce a candidate who can win," Behr said. "It's going to produce a far-right candidate, just as it has consistently for the last 20 years."

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