In the land of Reagan, a party in panic

As George W. Bush heads to the Golden State, GOP hopes for a spark to

When George W. Bush comes to California next week looking for support, he'll find a Republican Party looking for a savior.

The once-proud party that produced Ronald Reagan is on the ropes and could get knocked into long-term second-place status in the next election if it doesn't find a strong candidate to rally behind, say a broad range of political analysts here.

That, of course, would have huge implications nationally, given California casts more electoral votes in the selection of the president than any other state. But in this state more than most, politics is about people more than party loyalty, and one strong candidacy can change everything.

That's one reason many party faithful are practically salivating over Texas Governor Bush, who leads among Republicans and voters as a whole in state polls. Perceived as moderate, Latino-friendly, and charismatic, Bush is the rising star many hope will pull in voters who have been drifting away and help pull the party out of its tailspin.

But whether the nominee turns out to be Bush, Elizabeth Dole, or one of the other nine Republican hopefuls, many observers here agree this is a crucial moment in the state party's history.

"We're at a very delicate position that will determine how we do as a party in the long term," says Sacramento GOP campaign consultant Ray McNally. "If we're not careful, we could guarantee minority status for ourselves for years to come."

Based on data gathered over several recent election cycles, Field Poll analyst Mark DiCamillo says flatly, "Republicans need to reassert themselves now if they want to avoid ceding the state to the Democrats."

Like a Los Angeles sunset, Republicans have had some spectacular successes in recent years that may have masked a darkening sky. Triumphs with anti-affirmative action and anti-illegal immigration ballot initiatives were also alienating for many moderate, and particularly Latino, voters.

After some period of ambivalence, Republicans "now understand how deeply they've been hurt," says political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of Claremont Graduate University.

It's none too soon given the trend lines for Republicans, say a number of analysts. They took a shellacking of historic proportions last November. Despite holding the governor's office for the past 16 years, the GOP was enthusiastically swept aside by voters to make way for Democrat Gray Davis. He won by 20 percentage points and was gaining strength right up to election day.

That thumping would be less worrisome to Republicans if it were only a sign of an inept campaign and the wrong candidate. But beyond that outcome were several indicators that the state's voters are increasingly drifting away from the Republican ranks.

The most dynamic component of the California population, and electorate, is Latinos. Historically, they've tilted Democratic, but Republicans have been able to get a respectable 30 percent or so of their votes. Last November, though, the Republican gubernatorial candidate got only 17 percent.

In the view of many analysts, bridges to the state's fast-growing Latino population were burned by Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign against illegal immigrants and will be difficult to restore. Indeed, first-time Latino voters these days are far more likely to register Democrat than were their Hispanic predecessors. And one old adage of politics is that initial party affiliation tends to stick.

All these factors help explain why many state Republicans are so enthusiastic about Bush, who speaks Spanish and has demonstrated appeal among Latinos, winning nearly half their votes in his recent reelection as governor of Texas.

Referring to Bush's pending arrival, Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in southern California says, "he'll find a receptive audience."

In polls, Bush is the clear front-runner among Republicans, drawing twice as much support as Mrs. Dole, both of whom are the only candidates drawing double-digit support. Yet when pitted head to head against Democratic front-runner Al Gore, Bush leads, but only by a few points. Nationally, polls give Bush a stronger lead over Vice President Gore, perhaps one more indicator of California's Democratic tilt.

While the specifics of place and personality continue to drive individual elections, the pattern across the state is worrisome to Republicans. For instance, the party preference for US House elections in recent years has clearly swung to the Democrats.

In November 1994, the state's 13 million voters split pretty evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates. In November 1996, Democratic votes statewide had gained a five percentage point advantage. Last November, Democrats had a nine percentage point advantage.

And as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces reelection in November 2000, the Republicans are struggling to find a competitive candidate. Pollster DiCamillo says when they put up hypothetical candidates against Senator Feinstein, they have a hard time finding a Republican that is even recognized by a majority of the state's voters.

To make matters worse, the Republican Party appears seriously split between the conservative, more ideological wing represented by party chairman John McGraw and the party's moderates.

Moreover, with the governor's office and the state legislature under Democratic control, they hold the whip hand when it comes to reapportionment based on the 2000 census. Redrawing district and congressional lines could push the political balance in the state even more in their direction.

Of course, no one is ready to write off the Republicans yet. Long term, as baby boomers age and minority voters gain middle-class status, they could well seek the more conservative ranks of the GOP. And as party distinctions grow less pronounced, California's fastest growing group of voters - independents - could swing power back and forth, depending on the candidate.

But those long-term guesses pale in comparison to the immediate sense of crisis. As the GOP presidential hopefuls traverse the state in coming months, they'll find party regulars sizing them up with a glint of desperation in their eyes.

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