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Undercurrent of culture clash emerges at GOP convention

In primaries for Senate and governor races, Republicans are being asked to choose between an up-from-the-ranks candidate and a wealthy, politically inexperienced newcomer.

September 28, 2009|Cathleen Decker

INDIAN WELLS — To Trisha Bowler of Diamond Bar, a proud member of a Republican women's group, Meg Whitman's failure to vote for most of her adult life rules her out as a choice in the 2010 race for governor.

"That's a big one with me," said Bowler, decked out Sunday in bejeweled, red-white-and-blue GOP regalia at the party's weekend convention in Indian Wells.

The same is true of Whitman's recent turn to the Republican Party, which she joined two years ago.

"I'm not thrilled with someone who just became a Republican in 2007; that doesn't sit well with me," Bowler said.

Off-year conventions are generally meant to rev up enthusiasm for the upcoming election year, a chance for the often unheralded volunteers like Bowler to celebrate among their own. But this time there was also an undercurrent of culture clash.

In primaries for both big-ticket races next year -- governor and U.S. Senate -- Republicans were being asked to choose between an up-from-the-ranks candidate who has spent years currying favor with delegates and a celebrity with few ties to those assembled here but far more money to spend for victory.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine, who expects to face wealthy businesswoman Carly Fiorina in the Senate primary, was blunt as he implored delegates to turn aside the newcomer. (Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett Packard, has not formally announced a bid but has assembled a team of veteran strategists to run her campaign.)

"Hard work and principles can overcome celebrity and money," DeVore told one group Saturday.

In the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, Whitman, the former head of EBay and a billionaire, is facing off against state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a former software entrepreneur who, despite limited time in office, has courted the party's conservative activists for years. Also in the race is former Rep. Tom Campbell, who has more elective experience than the others but has often alienated the party base with his more moderate views on social issues and budget matters.

A sharper contrast between candidates exists in the Senate race, which will pit Fiorina against DeVore for the chance to take on Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. Fiorina campaigned on behalf of Republican presidential nominee John McCain last year but, like Whitman, would be making her first bid for elective office. DeVore, in contrast, is little-known statewide but has been working the party structure since he was 19 -- "and I'm now 47," he said Saturday, to underscore the contrast.

For party activists, the newcomers bring the blessings of money but pose multiple questions. Unlike party veterans whose views have been vetted over time, their ideology and loyalty can be suspect. DeVore slighted Fiorina on that front in a Sunday speech, calling into question her support for some federal bail-out measures, as well as for actions taken by Hewlett Packard during her tenure.

There is also the more subjective question of whether a neophyte candidate has what it takes to win. The difficulties of vaulting into politics at a rarefied level were evident in Whitman's rocky exchanges Saturday with reporters.

The Sacramento Bee reported last week that there was no evidence Whitman had registered to vote before 2002, when at 46 she registered as a nonpartisan. Since then, she has skipped four statewide elections, including the 2003 recall that kicked Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office. She first registered as a Republican in 2007.

Neither Whitman nor her campaign team disputed the Bee's findings, which contradicted earlier Whitman assertions that she had missed votes only "on several occasions." At a raucous news conference, Whitman responded to repeated questions by saying that she regretted her actions. She refused to explain why she hadn't registered until her mid-40s.

"I understand, and I've said what I'm going to say about it. So thank you for that," said Whitman, who last week gave $250,000 to the state GOP for its voter registration program.

Fiorina, who skipped the convention because she is concluding treatment for breast cancer, also has a spotty voting record. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that she voted in only five of the 18 elections between 2000 and 2008. Voter officials in Maryland and New Jersey, where she lived before moving to California, told the Chronicle there were no indications she had voted there.

Her supporters have noted that she, at least, has long been a Republican. Beyond that, her spokeswoman said, any differences between the Fiorina and DeVore camps will ultimately be resolved.

"At the end of the day, the party faithful want a strong candidate to take on Barbara Boxer. We are united on that front," Beth Miller said.

Whitman and Fiorina are hoping that voters' anger over the fumbling economy will lead them to embrace non-politicians more heartily. Poizner appeared to be guarding against anti-politician sentiment over the weekend, repeatedly characterizing his own plans as "bold" as if to break free from a bureaucratic stereotype.

But voters may also find refuge in a candidate who already knows how government works. At least that was the hope of Campbell, the former congressman, state legislator and Schwarzenegger administration budget director. He sought to remind Republicans that the Democrat they face in the governor's race will have substantial experience, whether former Gov. Jerry Brown or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wins his party's nod.

"On the merits, to have experience and background in the relevant field is, I think, of inestimable value," he said.

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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