Reporting from Santa Clara — Republicans running for their party's nomination for California governor and the U.S. Senate brawled over conservative purity Saturday as they vied to inspire the party's wary rank and file.
A national climate that portends trouble for Democrats lent a hopeful mood to a weekend convention of nearly 1,000 Republicans at a Silicon Valley hotel.
Candidates took turns pummeling Democrats Jerry Brown, who hopes to recapture the governorship that he first won in 1974, and Barbara Boxer, the perennially vulnerable U.S. senator whom Republicans have failed three times to defeat.
But a ferocious back-and-forth between gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman over conservative fealty foreshadowed a nasty Republican primary over the next 12 weeks.
And for a badly weakened state party fighting for a comeback, the Poizner-Whitman contest was raising a familiar question: Is a Republican nominee who strays from conservative dogma acceptable?
Both Whitman and Poizner offered essentially the same answer: Don't worry about me; my opponent would be worse.
"In this time of crisis, we need a leader in the governor's chair with a firm, fiscally conservative compass in her hand, not a weather vane," Whitman told Republicans at a Friday dinner.
A billionaire who made her fortune as chief executive of EBay, Whitman reinforced the message by placing -- on a continuous loop -- an anti-Poizner ad on Channel 32 of every television set in the hotel.
"Despite what he wants you to believe, Steve Poizner is not a conservative," the minute-long ad said, citing Poizner's views on abortion, taxes, crime and the environment.
In case anyone missed it, Whitman forces slipped a DVD under every hotel room door: "Steve Poizner: Still Hiding Who He Really Is."
Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner, lashed back, saying Whitman is not conservative enough on abortion, tax cuts or illegal immigration.
"I don't support government-funded abortions, and she passionately does," Poizner said in an interview Saturday -- his position a switch from the stand he took six years ago as an Assembly candidate in a Democratic-leaning district.
Her tax cuts, he added, would be smaller than his. "Half-measures aren't going to work," he said.
Alarming some Republicans who fear a renewed Latino backlash against the party, Poizner also hammered Whitman for opposing Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants.
"If you've been to an emergency room or a clinic lately, we're all impacted by this: the massive waiting time because of our healthcare system being overwhelmed by people that are here illegally," he said Friday at a news conference.
At public schools, he continued, "a lot of people who come here illegally don't speak English and need special attention. The state can't afford this."
Poizner's remarks sparked a rebuke from Abel Maldonado, a Santa Maria state senator running for lieutenant governor.
"That doesn't help my party," he said, citing the surge in Latino voters favoring Democrats in the aftermath of Proposition 187. "We've pretty much been in the back bench in the Senate and the Assembly ever since. We need to be in the business of multiplying, not subtracting."
For all the rancor, Republicans were optimistic that a turnaround could be at hand once the primary battles are over.
Just before a crowd of several dozen sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at an anti-tax "Tea Party Express" celebration, state party Chairman Ron Nehring reminded them of the unlikely U.S. Senate victory in January of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
"If it can happen there, we can send Barbara Boxer into retirement this year," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the environment has changed."
At a convention luncheon, U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina made the most theatrical presentation: a seven-minute video portraying Boxer as a menacing giant zeppelin floating over California.
"Having gone through chemotherapy and beaten back cancer," she told the crowd afterward in a theater-in-the-round monologue, "I'm certainly not intimidated by a career politician whose sharp tongue and legislative record is a major embarrassment to this state."
In her own bid to show conservatives that she is one of their own, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard ridiculed Boxer's stands on the environment and abortion.
"Isn't it ironic that Barbara Boxer worked so hard to protect a 2-inch fish, but she can't find it in her heart to protect the lives of the unborn," she said.
One of Fiorina's rivals in the Senate primary, former Rep. Tom Campbell, has taken liberal stands on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues, but he argued that conservatives are too focused on the stalled economy to care.
"I have not got one question at the Republican convention on a social issue at all," he said in an interview.
The one candidate whose strict adherence to conservative principles went unquestioned -- on fiscal and social issues alike -- was Chuck DeVore, an Irvine assemblyman also seeking the Senate nomination.
"It is better to be right than to be rich," he said in an interview. "You want to elect people who have a set of values and principles that are known and proven so if they are elected, they're going to do what you expect them to do."
DeVore's backers included Jan Soule of San Jose, a 61-year-old Republican handing out DeVore stickers to delegates. In the governor's race, she said, she has only reluctantly embraced Poizner, because she sees both him and Whitman as liberals.
"I don't think they really understand the need to cut taxes and balance the budget," she said. "We need to make some hard choices."