SAN DIEGO -- It's true that Republicans are giddy about their chances his year. But as the first day of California's Grand Old Party gathering comes to a close, you can't help but feel that this is a group of passionate partisans wrestling with what's important in this election... and what to do when certain hot-button topics leave them divided.And so here's the question: are some in the GOP's base still willing to work for a candidate like Meg Whitman who they think is too tentative, or even wrong, on issues like illegal immigration and climate change? Is the Republican litmus test in full force? And if they don't get what they want, will they walk away and, just maybe, hand Jerry Brown the keys to the governor's office?
Day 1 of the California GOP's biannual convention (yes, they have two every year) was focused squarely on Meg Whitman -- both her appearance at the evening dinner and the pretty loud grumblings of some conservatives about what they see as her unwillingness to embrace the right stance on illegal immigration, climate change, and taxes.
The above narrative isn't one that party leaders would prefer those of us in the press who've come to San Diego to write about, but it's hard to ignore. Whitman may be running a race unlike any other in California gubernatorial politics, but in some cases she may find herself in the same kind of internal GOP crossfire that's been the dominant party dynamic in California for the better part of the last 15 years.
Delegates seemed to trickle in slowly to this first day of the three day event, the only day in which Whitman is scheduled to be in town. Carly Fiorina takes the stage on Saturday. Once again, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took a pass on being with his party, offering proof via Twitter that he's working on the budget impasse in Sacramento.Whitman's speech to the delegates tonight lasted 20 minutes and was focused on the two J's: jobs and Jerry. Whitman, speaking from notes to a crowd that filled only about half of a large ballroom, tried a few new Brown zingers on for size for the Republicans dining on chicken, orzo pasta, and creme brulee.
"Jerry Brown spent $230,000 redecorating his office," said Whitman about a Brown decision after becoming attorney general. "He probably could have gone to IKEA."
But the speech was mostly familiar themes -- jobs, cutting government waste, fewer business regulations, reforming welfare. And so it was a new motto, of sorts, that stood out: "I think this is a battle for the soul of California," she told the audience.
The reason it stood out; some at this convention would say they're fighting for the soul of their party.
"I believe that it's time for the Republican party to be concerned about whether Republicans are going to turn out for this ticket," said former state GOP chair Michael Schroeder in an afternoon chat with reporters.
His comments were made as part of an awkwardly 'press conference' organized by two organizations representing some of the most die-hard Republican faithful, the California Republican Assembly and the Young Republican Federation of California. The two groups, who said they were denied use of a convention room to speak to the press (party officials say there was no formal request), are raising the red flag about Whitman -- most notably, on the subject of illegal immigration.
"Once she won the primary," said CRA president Celeste Greig, "she became more to the center." Greig takes special issue with Whitman's stance on supporting the Arizona illegal immigration law, but not for implementation in California. "That is nonsense," Greig told reporters.
Whitman rejected any suggestions she's modified her stance. "I have actually not changed a single position on immigration," she told reporters earlier in the day at a San Diego event.
The CRA is asking delegates to this weekend's convention to go on record formally supporting the controversial law in the Grand Canyon State. But first, they must get the resolution out of a party committee on Saturday morning -- stay tuned on that one.
The message to Whitman was clear: we need a reason to help you win. "It's a matter of enthusiasm," said Adam Abrahms, chairman of the YRFC. "I want all of our candidates to go out there to say the things, and do the things, that are going to help energize our base."
And it was former chairman Schroeder who was most pointed in his comments, suggesting that the conservative base of the party -- many of which supported Steve Poizner in the primary -- isn't feeling the love. Perhaps his best quip was this: "It's funny finding something that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, and Steve Poizner all agree on -- which is that none of them are supporting Meg Whitman."
(Schwarzenegger has avoided most questions about the race to replace him; Poizner, it's true, has not yet endorsed Whitman.)
But Whitman, as well as the state's top party official, don't think illegal immigration, in particular, is the issue de jour in 2010. "The dominant issues in this campaign," said California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring, "are going to be five issues: taxes, spending, the economy, jobs, and debt."
So what happens next? Who knows. Republican statewide candidates need more than just Republican votes; but the party faithful are still a key part of any victory. Whether Whitman can navigate these waters, which have sunk others before her, will be interesting to watch.