TEMECULA, CALIF. — Wearing star-studded GOP elephant brooches and red, white, and blue neckties, they huddle around a polyurethane picnic table on the town green. With the gazebo draped for a campaign talk by their chosen candidate for governor - Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock - a group of inland, rural voters chats about the long decline of America's largest state and the man they say will fix it.
They are self-declared "political purists," die-hard activists, vocal and proud of it. Yet these are the same right-wing conservatives, say analysts, who've handed every top state office - and control of both legislative houses - to Democrats in recent years. By knocking off moderate candidates in two previous primaries for governor, and nominating dozens of conservatives whose social agendas are out of step with most voters here, they've brought state Republican fortunes to their lowest levels in 30 years.
By strongly supporting Senator McClintock - the more conservative Republican in California's historic recall vote - analysts say they're in danger of repeating the shotgun-to-foot scenario.
"If the election were held today conservative Republicans [would] siphon off just enough votes from Arnold Schwarzenegger to guarantee the election to [Democratic candidate and Lt. Gov.] Cruz Bustamante," says Tony Quinn, a political analyst in Sacramento. The most recent polls have Mr. Schwarzenegger as the leading Republican, with 25 percent of likely voters. McClintock's numbers have doubled since July, but hover around 13 percent.
"For the past several years they have pushed conservative candidates whose social views do not jibe with where most of California has moved on the key issues. It looks like they will do it again."
Now, with businessman Peter Ueberroth's Tuesday announcement that he is withdrawing his candidacy, analysts say the majority of his seven percent supporters will go to Arnold Schwarzenegger because Ueberroth's main appeal was to business conservatives who are concerned about the state's business climate. Ueberroth's exit also means that Schwarzenegger's competition for the Republican vote is limited mainly to McClintock.
"I think a lot of Republican's will now begin to utter the "S" word, for spoiler," says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "And a reputation as a spoiler is not a good thing for anyone's political career."
Almost since the days of Ronald Reagan, California has been morphing from the model of a Republican-leaning megastate. Democratic shifts have been especially strong in the last decade, with the rise of Asian and Hispanic middle classes, commuters' repopulating of the San Joaquin Valley, and the loss of 500,000 defense and aerospace jobs.
Registered Democrats number 6.74 million, compared to 5.32 million Republicans, about half of whom are considered conservative. In addition, 2.2 million voters identify with neither party.
But even while Orange County, the onetime bastion of Republican conservatism, has joined coastal cities in the liberal column, inland regions have become more conservative. Pouring in from other states, many residents here share Mr. McClintock's view of the the recall as a turning point for the resurgence of conservatism's glory days.
"We hope that all the liberal policies of the past years here have taken us down the tubes so deep that it's going to prove to everybody that we can't have liberal democrats running the show anymore," says Betty Hugaert, a 15-year resident of Temecula in the state's fastest-growing county.
Political analysts say it's not primarily fiscal, immigration, or even environmental agendas that have most hurt Republican candidates in recent state elections. Rather, it's topics such as abortion, gun control, and gay rights - policy issues on which sitting governors hold less sway. But while some GOP stances, such as holding the lid on taxes, are attractive to many Democrats, GOP candidates often douse themselves with pickle juice by talking up the very positions - like opposition to abortion and gay unions - that are anathema to liberals.
"Conservatives in California seem to have slept through Politics 101. They don't understand the first rule of politics, which is that when you are not in the majority view, don't go running around articulating the very issues that the majority of voters don't like," says Mr. Quinn.
Instead of nominating moderate Republican Richard Riordan in last year's gubernatorial election, for instance - whom polls had decreed an easy win over Democratic Gov. Gray Davis - the conservative-heavy primary electorate chose the more right-leaning William Simon. Governor Davis beat Mr. Simon in the general election, as he had beaten conservative Dan Lundgren in the previous election - helped significantly in both cases, say experts, by the GOP candidates' conservative stances on abortion, gay rights, and gun control.
Here at Sam Hicks Park in the center of town, conversations bear out the analysts' comments. But some conservatives here in Temecula seem have learned their lessons.
"I'm primarily supporting McClintock because I think he knows how to turn the state around fiscally," says Tim Faulkner, who works for the school district. "But anyone can run a fiscal budget; it takes a real man to stand up for the unborn. For me, where a man stands on social issues goes to the core of his integrity."
Part and parcel of that approval are concerns over Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger's advocacy of abortion rights and acceptance of gay adoption. Mr. McClintock, in contrast, opposes abortion.
"This is a moral question for us," says Ms. Hugaert, a retired federal-government employee. She volunteers full time in the local library and keeps records of contributions at the Methodist church. "The man who stands for principle in social matters is someone I can trust to do the right thing in other matters. Dishonesty in office is what we have now. Principles and morals are the antidote."
With just over three weeks until the vote, all eyes are on polls for Schwarzenegger vs. McClintock. While the former muscleman's ratings have been steady, McClintock's have risen, aided in part by his participation - and Schwarzenegger's absence - in the first debate last week.
"Arnold ceded the conservative microphone to McClintock by not being at that debate," says political scientist Sherry Jeffe. "McClintock took it and used it quite well."
However the numbers seesaw in coming days, some conservatives here say they'd still consider casting their votes for Schwarzenegger over McClintock if it looks as if not doing so would cost Republicans the election.
"I am not tickled to death with Arnold when I hear him talk about gun control, gay rights, or abortion," says 15-year resident Ms. Hugaert's husband, Gene. "I see the hole Republicans have dug themselves into in this state, so I won't make the mistake I made by voting for Perot and giving the election to Clinton. If it comes down to Arnold vs. Bustamante, I'll switch my vote to Arnold."
State party officials say they will take no position on a front-runner or on which Republican voters should choose. But, eyeing old patterns, they say they hope the candidates themselves will weigh their prospects against the party's outlook at the eleventh hour - then huddle and urge voters to back a single candidate.
"We hope our candidates and voting members do what is best for the state, which is to look at the numbers and coalesce behind one person," says Mike Wintemute, spokesman for the state Republican party.
Bustamante (D) 25% 30%
Schwarzenegger (R) 22% 25%
McClintock (R) 9% 13%
Ueberroth (R) 5% 5%
Huffington (I) 4% 3%
Camejo (G) 2% 2%
Source: The Field Poll, Sept. 3-7