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NEWS ANALYSIS

All GOP Eyes on Schwarzenegger

Republicans at state convention wonder if the governor can transform the party.

August 08, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — As California Republicans gathered here Saturday for a rare summer convention -- without their governor or their president -- the state's minority party has been debating: Is there such a thing as a Schwarzenegger Republican?

There is little doubt that the new GOP governor has energized the finances of his party: It is raising money at twice the rate it did for the last election. The party believes it is in a better position than Democrats to make inroads in a handful of Assembly and Senate races.

The convention drew several hundred party faithful for workshops on how to defeat Democrats, attract women and minority voters, and mine the state for other supporters. Amid this, the party is anxiously waiting to see whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger represents something larger than himself at the ballot box, whether he can transform his party.

For some Republicans, there was an answer in the March primary. Rather than slash social programs, the governor persuaded voters and conservative tax-cutters to accept a ballot initiative that called for $15 billion in borrowing. Proposition 57, the bond measure, received 63% of the vote.

"People have been talking about the future effect of Schwarzenegger and what is going to happen in November. It's already happened," said Matt Rexroad, a GOP political consultant. "When is it where you see Republicans supporting a ballot measure worth $15 billion in borrowing? That is something I never thought I would see."

For the most part, Schwarzenegger has been concentrating on his own political and governing agenda, though he has taped automated phone messages for candidates in seven Republican legislative races and helped raise money for GOP lawmakers in close fights with Democrats.

Even though he is the nominal head of the California Republican Party, the governor is not scheduled to attend the convention this weekend at a harbor-view Hyatt. Republican officials said he was preparing a prime-time speech that he will give in three weeks at the Republican National Convention in New York.

Schwarzenegger's name did come up in speeches and during panel discussions, however. U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones, who is running against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, spent much of his speech on the governor's merits, saying the "California dream was dying" under former Gov. Gray Davis, and "Arnold Schwarzenegger has changed all that.

"Arnold needs a strong partner in Washington," Jones said of himself, calling his campaign a way to "continue the job we started in October."

Schwarzenegger's absence from the schedule was noticeable, but some delegates said the party should be grateful for what he has accomplished since October.

Phil Moore, attending the convention from Lompoc, said she chastised someone in the Hyatt elevator for grumbling about the governor.

"I remember when this party wouldn't let Pete Wilson in the front door," Moore said, referring to the moderate former GOP governor. "This party is now back on the right track -- where for years it was a bit conservative. He has done so much to put the factions together and give the party a positive attitude."

These days, the fastest-growing party in California is no party at all: decline-to-state independents. The GOP now represents a little more than 35% of the state's 15 million registered voters, and Democrats, about 43%.

Republicans have been the minority party in California since 1934, though seven GOP governors have been elected since then. Ranked among the most influential is Ronald Reagan, who helped transform the party on a national scale.

Schwarzenegger has crafted his own agenda -- based mostly on government and political reform -- and he has been consistent in embracing any politician, regardless of party, who cooperated with him.

Schwarzenegger scrupulously avoids some of the social issues -- abortion and gun control among them -- that have trapped Republicans and turned off many liberal voters.

And he has managed to skirt one of the most contentious issues being debated this year around the country -- marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples -- by saying the issue should be left to the courts or the public and that he "doesn't care" either way.

"I don't see him out there trying to remake the image of the Republican Party," said Allan Hoffenblum, a co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks legislative races. "What I see him concentrate on is government reform, which by itself could change the party, the people who they get to run for office, and the people who vote for them."

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