GOP Confab: WrestleMania

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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.

A protester outside the California GOP convention in San Diego wonders... is Meg Whitman (as well as a certain incumbent) really a Republican?

Photo: John Myers

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.

Meg Whitman's arrival at the California GOP convention in San Diego Friday afternoon

Photo: John Myers

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.

The candidate has seemed to struggle a bit of late on explaining where she stands in relation to some of the finer points of immigration policy.

"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."

The conservative groups are also unhappy about her public statement that she might vote against the climate change law suspension measure, Proposition 23.

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.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.
  • ric822

    As a Republican I know what I am about to suggest may sound crazy, but hear me out.
    Jerry Brown should be our next Governor.
    Here is why:
    The California legislature is a mess due to the fact that it is controlled by the Democrats and in part that so many “Republicans” are willing to bend to the will of the Democrats and give them what they want. This election is not going to change that.
    No matter who is Governor, California’s Legislature is going to drive our economy over the cliff (caused by our tax and spend culture).
    While you could argue that if (and in California it’s a big if) “Republicans” gain some seats in the Legislature it may slow this process down, it will not stop California’s plunge into the economic abyss. So what should Republican’s do? They need to understand that if a Republican Governor is in the driver’ seat when this happens (and it will happen) it will be decades before we will get another Republican Governor. So in the long run it is better to have Jerry “Moon-Beam” Brown in the driver’ seat when California plunges into the economic abyss. Only then will we Republican’s stand a chance of regaining the Legislature and the Governor’s office.

  • Laurie

    Makes sense to me. I certainly will never vote for a Republican in the future unless they are a moderate one. These right wingers don’t represent me.

  • J Smithson

    Adam Abrams is a loser. Hopefully his tenure with YRFC will be short. He’s already lost one of the major clubs in OC over his leadership.

  • Let It Bleed

    Hey, how did the guy holding the poster of the RINO Twins get a picture of a topless Meg Whitman on the left?

  • Benito

    The Republicans are so funny, when the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. When most Americans (with Latin America roots) go to the polls this November we will remember that the GOP has gone on a nationwide rant in proposing and passing several anti-immigration legislation and have continue to blame us for the flat economy or worse. We will remember who stands with us and who stands against us, so trying to stop it now is somewhat funny, but go ahead, you will not change our minds. Your hate made you do it, in November; you will reap what you have sown.