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Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, takes his seat in the Assembly during the first session of the new year at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. Earlier in the day Donnelly was detained, cited and released after he tried to bring a gun in his carry-on bag through the security checkpoint at the Ontario International Airport on his way to Sacramento. Donnelly will face a court hearing at a later date. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

When U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says of the tea party that the GOP establishment is "going to crush them everywhere," it's a pretty strong indication that the dynamic of Republican politics is shifting.

Coupled with House Speaker John Boehner's outburst late last year, in which he said tea party groups have "lost all credibility," McConnell's smack talk shows that Republican leaders are prepared in 2014 to at least attempt to throw the tea party under the bus.

There are signs the same strategy is unfolding in California.

When the California Republican Party convenes this weekend, for instance, there will be no opportunity for Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a tea party favorite and the party's current front-runner for governor, to speak the delegates.

The convention will open, however, with a welcome reception featuring the newly elected, moderate mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer.

Up in Northern California, Rep. Tom McClintock -- who espoused tea party philosophy as a Ventura County legislator long before the tea party ever existed -- was forced this week to send out a desperate fundraising email to supporters that began, "I need your help like never before."

In a maneuver that appears to have been at least partly orchestrated by consultant Rob Stutzman, a one-time top adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican filed to run against McClintock in a two-person race that includes no Democrats. Under the state's top-two primary system, the two will square off against each other in November in a race that will test tea party strength in an overwhelmingly Republican district.

Not surprisingly, there are those on the far right who are pushing back.

Among them is Rob McCoy, the Newbury Park pastor running in Ventura County's 44th Assembly District.

An article in the Washington Times this month addressing the emerging civil war within the Republican Party led with a quote from McCoy: "Today, our party's leaders act like thermometers measuring the temperature of the electorate. We need to be the thermostats and set the temperature."

McCoy is endorsed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, perhaps the most prominent voice in the tea party movement today.

Santa Rosa Valley businessman Rafael Dagnesses, who last weekend attended some of the events at the annual CPAC convention in Washington featuring speeches from Paul and a who's who of tea party heroes, said he has learned since declaring his intent to run for Congress that the political establishment of both parties has little tolerance for outsiders like himself.

"They definitely circle the wagons and try to make sure average Americans don't participate in the process," Dagnesses said.

Dagnesses is running in Ventura County's 26th Congressional District, where the Republican establishment has rallied around the candidacy of Assemblyman Jeff Gorell of Camarillo.

Dagnesses said that while he doesn't consider himself a member of the tea party, he believes he is more conservative than Gorell. He said he has spoken with tea party activists in the district and is sympathetic with what they have to say. "They want their country back."

Dagnesses very much believes in the tea party vision of citizen government. He has signed an affidavit saying that if elected he will serve no more than eight years.

In much of the country, there is a concerted GOP establishment effort to prevent far-right candidates from advancing to the November ballot this year. The party establishment realizes it cannot afford a repeat of losses that resulted from having fielded tea party candidates such as Nevada's Sharron Angle and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell.

Some California GOP leaders privately worry that Donnelly fits into that camp -- and that his presence at the top of the ticket would drag down all Republican candidates in the state.

Donnelly told me Tuesday he believes the state GOP is "not making the same mistake as Mitch McConnell" and that state party Chairman Jim Brulte "has been fair and has been inclusive."

He acknowledged, however, that "there are a lot of donors and elites of the Republican Party who would rather have someone else as the nominee."

Their hope is that tea party activists can be neutralized in June, and then will have no choice but to vote for more moderate -- and, presumably, more electable -- Republicans in the fall.

It has become an enduring political cliché to write that an upcoming primary election will be a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. This year, that cliché might actually be true.