Sheila Carroll grew up in a family where being an Irish Catholic and a Democrat were one and the same thing. She was a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles when the most famous Irish Catholic of them all - John F. Kennedy - came campaigning for president in 1960.
"I wasn't 21 yet so I couldn't vote for him, but I thought he was everything that anybody could be," she recalls.
But sometime in the 1960s, Ms. Carroll strayed into the arms of the Republican Party. "To this day my mother is a staunch Democrat," she says with a smile. "I can hardly even talk to her about what I'm doing."
What she's doing is serving as a delegate at the Republican convention in San Diego. A first-time delegate, Carroll embodies much of what is driving this party toward majority status, as well as the inner struggles that may hold it back from reaching that goal.
Solidly middle class, Carroll is a self-described "50s person" who has raised a family in the suburbs of California's Central Valley. She helps her husband run a small business, and she embraces the values of hard work and fiscal responsibility. But Carroll is also fighting to bring women into political life and is deeply concerned about what she sees as intolerant attitudes of the ultraright-right within her party.
Earning her stripes
Years of volunteer work in the trenches of the party's women's organization culminated in Carroll becoming president of the California Federation of Republican Women. Now, she is both excited and nervous about being in the center of the convention action.
"When I was made a delegate, I was thrilled," she says. Then the call came two weeks ago to be one of two state representatives on the platform committee, along with California Attorney General Dan Lungren.
"We were remodeling here," she says, pointing to the gleaming linoleum floor just laid in their ranch-home kitchen. "My reaction was, 'Are you sure you want me?'"
A week before the convention, sitting at her kitchen table, Carroll was bracing for the battle over abortion that dominated this week's platform committee meetings in San Diego. While she carefully avoids the words "pro-choice" to describe her position, her sympathies clearly are not with the Christian Coalition and other conservatives who insist on preserving a platform commitment to a ban on abortion.
"I don't feel [abortion] has anything to do with politics," she says. "As a Republican, I don't think Dole's going to beat himself. I think the Republican Party is going to beat Dole if we don't stop fighting over this issue."
This delegate is happy with the party's nominee. "He's man of honesty and integrity and I trust him," she says.
But a mention of Colin Powell draws noticeably enthusiastic raves - "one of my favorite people" - and a clear sense of pride. "I'm glad he came to our party to show we are inclusive."
Carroll traces her conversion to the Republican cause to the values of hard work and patriotism that she learned from her parents. She was the only child of an Army doctor, growing up moving from military base to base in locales as far flung as Korea, Japan, and Washington State.
Carroll married her college sweetheart, worked as an elementary school teacher to help put her husband through law school, and moved to Los Banos, a farming community in the Central Valley. The turmoil of the 1960s barely penetrated that conservative town.
In 1968, Carroll cast her ballot for Richard Nixon. "I was a member of the '50s generation," she recalls. "In the '60s I was appalled at the lack of respect for elders, the lack of respect for authority."
On the other hand, Carroll found herself in an unhappy marriage, "trying to survive in a town where a college-educated woman was the exception." After a "devastating" divorce, she remarried and in 1973 moved to Modesto, where she and her husband, a construction contractor, have raised five children.
The neighborhood of two-car garages, trimmed green lawns, and clipped hedges speaks of a quiet ease, as does the curved pool sparkling in the Carroll backyard. But Carroll's voice raises just a notch in defense of what it took to get here.
"We're looking OK now, but we've had many, many tough years," she says. "We've worked for everything we've gotten.... If you haven't had to work and you're supported on welfare, you don't realize what it means."
In between Little League, swim meets, and a host of other activities, Carroll found herself involved in the local Republican women's organization, a group she jokingly says is still known as a province of "blue hairs" who help out at GOP functions. "In the beginning it was just one of many activities," she says. "But anything I join, I end up as president," she adds with a laugh.
Carroll is proud of bringing a dynamism and a determination to make the women more than just a party auxiliary. Under her leadership in recent years, the organization has grown much more active on its own in political issues.
An advocate for women
She is actutely aware that California's state legislature and congressional delegation include only five Republican women. By contrast, she notes, 29 Democratic women serve in such positions. "You can't tell me that the Democratic women are more electable than Republican women," Carroll says indignantly.
Carroll says the ultraconservative wing of the GOP is responsible for the lack of women lawmakers. It controls much of the money raised to support candidates and refuses to back a candidate who does not agree with far-right views. For these conservatives, opposition to abortion "is the test, the only test in town," she says.
Carroll is acutely aware of the so-called gender gap between the Republican and Democratic parties.
"I think the Republican party is worried about women now," she says, "and they should be."