BURLINGAME -- Delegates arriving at this weekend's California Republican Party convention Friday seemed as determined as mountaineers at the base of K2 -- but still searching for a sturdy climbing rope.
The state GOP has had a few local electoral victories recently but is still trying to bounce back from years of declining voter registration and relevance. Though the incumbent Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature enjoy rising ratings, Republicans seek both to expose their flaws and to court new voters -- especially from minority communities -- to help drive California rightward again.
San Francisco's Harmeet Dhillon, the state party's vice chairwoman, said the convention's "rebuild, renew, reclaim" theme is about renewing "the enthusiasm of our grass-roots volunteers and supporters -- and rebuilding "the nuts and bolts" in the wake of candidates "who parachute in to the top of the ticket" without being tested in smaller races.
Paging Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina.
"We don't have a deep bench in our party after a few years of decimation," she added.
But California "is not going to be reclaimed in 2014," Dhillon acknowledged. "We're realistic."
Instead, she said, the GOP will play a longer game, exploiting Democratic divisions and weaknesses over things like high-speed rail, oil and gas fracking, marijuana legalization and gun control.
The Democrats' one-party rule in Sacramento has left them "out of touch," she said.
"I can't say that the constitutional offices are a focus for us this year," she said. Instead, the GOP will concentrate on legislative races, spending heavily in specific regions such as Sacramento and other parts of the Central Valley, as well as Ventura County. "And if you're not in one of those areas -- good luck."
The three-day convention will be a maelstrom of caucus meetings, receptions and workshops with such topics as "Getting Out the Vote in 2014" and "The Wonderful World of Data." Candidates will press the flesh in search of contributions and endorsements. And if any babies are present, rest assured they'll be kissed.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was set to speak Friday night, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas -- former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee -- will speak Saturday.
A prime rhetorical target will be Gov. Jerry Brown, who according to some polls boasts record-high approval ratings and had amassed a $17 million campaign war chest by the start of the year -- and has raised at least $2.4 million more since.
The GOP's gubernatorial alternatives include Tim Donnelly, a firebrand conservative assemblyman from San Bernardino County who has suffered from anemic fundraising and whose campaign manager quit Wednesday after strategic disagreements. Neel Kashkari, a more moderate former U.S. Treasury Department official and asset manager, raised about $1.2 million since entering the race in January but might take heat for his oversight of Wall Street's TARP bailout and for -- gasp! -- voting for Barack Obama in 2008.
Andrew Blount, an entrepreneur and mayor of Laguna Hills, entered the governor's race in late February and so far is the only major contributor ($12,000) to his campaign. And then there's Glenn Champ, a Fresno County businessman whose website says he "represents a new breed of Christian soldier moving forward in the army of the lord, on the highway of righteousness, stomping on the devil's head, with a new song of righteousness in our hearts."
Each of the four candidates will deliver a 10-minute speech Sunday. But they were added to the agenda only this past week, sparking speculation that state GOP Chairman Jim Brulte had hoped to avoid airing an ideological divide that might play badly beyond the party's own walls.
It's reminiscent of the 2002 state Republican convention in San Jose, where former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan -- a moderate whom unpopular Democratic incumbent Gov. Gray Davis clearly didn't want to face in the general election -- was smack-talked by former Gov. George Deukmejian and booed by delegates during a debate. Riordan lost the primary to the more conservative Bill Simon, whom Davis defeated that November. Less than a year later, Davis was recalled from office.
Back then, Republicans were 35.2 percent of California's registered voters; today they're 28.7 percent, while Democrats have lost just one percentage point in the same 14-year period. Democrats now hold a two-thirds voting majority in the Assembly, but lost it at least in the state Senate recently as two senators took paid leaves to battle serious criminal charges.
The GOP wants to rub salt in those wounds and already feels buoyed by a few electoral victories in the past year: Andy Vidak's win last July in the Central Valley's 16th Senate District, and Kevin Faulconer's win last month in San Diego's mayoral election. Faulconer's victory will be the subject of a workshop Saturday morning.
Yet those wins might not have been solid indicators of a resurgent state GOP.
The 16th Senate District seat came open when Democrat Michael Rubio, elected in 2010, resigned early last year to become an oil lobbyist -- perhaps presaging an easier road for a Republican successor.
And although Faulconer won the mayor's office in a city with a 13-point Democratic voter registration edge, he prevailed in a low-turnout special election to replace disgraced Democrat Bob Filner, who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.