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GOP Looks to Inland Empire

Times Staff Writer

After President Bush took the stage during an October fundraiser in Riverside, the crowd cheered his announcement that the former citrus town had raised more than $1 million to keep him in the White House.

After all, that was on par with the money Bush collected at a fundraiser in affluent Orange County two months earlier.

Orange County still reigns as Southern California’s Republican stronghold when it comes to generating votes and campaign money for GOP candidates. But the Inland Empire, with its unbridled growth in population and registered voters, is gaining on its westward neighbor and could take over the region’s Republican throne within a decade.

“We are absolutely giving them a run for their money,” Kevin Jeffries, chairman of the Riverside County Republican Party, said of his fellow Republicans in Orange County.

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Despite the Bush fundraiser, the largely blue-collar counties of Riverside and San Bernardino still can’t compete overall with the well-heeled contributors in Orange County when it comes to writing checks to the GOP.

Since January 2003, Orange County campaign contributors donated nearly $6 million to Republican national candidates and parties -- nearly twice the amount raised in Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined during the same period.

“Money still talks in politics, and money is still in Orange County and San Diego counties,” said Max Neiman, a professor of political science at UC Riverside.

Still, Republican and Democratic political analysts agree that the Inland Empire will eventually become a political wellspring of money and votes, and the GOP has responded with an aggressive campaign to claim control of the region. The Democrats in the region are losing the battle, party leaders acknowledge, and have been outgunned and outmaneuvered.

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“They seem to be on a winning streak in this county,” said Shirley Walton, chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee in Riverside County.

GOP leaders have spent thousands of dollars in voter registration drives, using paid workers to staff registration booths at fairs, carnivals and popular stores such as Home Depot -- efforts that were energized during the gubernatorial recall election in October.

In contrast, the Democratic Party in Riverside County relies on party volunteers to register voters. The results have been apparent: The Republicans have registered three times as many new voters as the Democrats in the past four years.

The Democratic Party’s efforts in San Bernardino County haven’t fared much better. The county’s Democratic Central Committee was so disorganized that its headquarters in the city of San Bernardino were closed and the phones turned off. Plus, one of the county’s most powerful Democrats, county Supervisor Gerald “Jerry” Eaves, pleaded guilty to political corruption in January.

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“We’ve had four years of problems and inactivity, and we are now going to step up,” said Mark Shephard, the new chairman of the county’s Democratic Central Committee, who promised a stronger effort to lead and organize the party.

If the Republican Party continues registering new voters at the current pace, and the projected growth in population holds true, Riverside and San Bernardino counties could surpass Orange County in Republican voters in 10 to 12 years, said San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who heads that county’s Republican Central Committee.

“We are not there yet, but we are getting there,” he said.

And it has not gone unnoticed.

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Bush campaigned for two days in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in October, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made two campaign stops in the area last year, including a joint appearance with Bush.

Marty Wilson, an outside political consultant to Schwarzenegger, said national and statewide Republican candidates now recognize the importance of the Inland Empire.

“It’s always been on the radar for Republican candidates, but now it’s an even bigger blip than it was before,” he said.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined are home to about 604,000 Republican voters, compared with 674,000 Republican voters in Orange County, according to voter registration figures.

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Since 2000, Riverside County has had the biggest percentage growth in Republican voters in Southern California, a 17% jump, according to election officials. Statewide, the number of Republican voters has increased 4% during the same period. Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined have added nearly 70,700 Republican voters, compared with 66,000 in Orange County during the same period.

Over the past four years, the GOP in Riverside and San Bernardino counties has increased its voter registration lead over Democrats. In Orange County, the Democrats have kept pace with their rival party.

In San Bernardino County, Republicans represented 44% of the voters in 2004, up from 41% in 2000. During that same period, Democrats dropped to 39% from 43% of the voters, according to county election officials.

In Riverside County, Republicans grew from 47% of the voters in 2000 to 49% in 2004. Democrats dropped from 37% in 2000 to 34% four years later, according to election officials there. Meanwhile, Republicans in Orange County continued to represent about 49% of the voters over four years; Democrats stayed at close to 31%.

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In sheer numbers, Los Angeles County is home to more Republican voters -- slightly more than 1 million -- than Orange County. But Democrats dominate the political scene in Los Angeles County, being 51% of the voters compared with 28% for Republicans. Los Angeles County also remains a reliable source of contributions to national Democratic candidates and the parties, providing $22 million since the start of 2003, compared with $15.4 million for the Republican Party and its candidates.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties have boasted the state’s greatest population growth, adding more than 666,000 residents between 1990 and 2000. The growth is expected to continue, with the two-county population expected to expand by more than 2.5 million by 2030, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Orange and Los Angeles counties are also going to grow significantly, demographic experts say, but at less than half the pace of the Inland Empire counties.

Over the past decade, the Inland Empire has been a magnet for suburbanites looking to stretch their home-buying dollar and escape the crowded urban centers. This trend has resulted in a migration of Republican voters, who tend to have higher incomes than Democrats and can afford to pursue their dreams of homeownership, said longtime Inland Empire economist John Husing.A similar migration took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Republicans from Los Angeles County drifted south to Orange County and San Diego, making those regions the Republican strongholds that they are today, Husing said.

But Husing said the Republican Party’s success in the Inland Empire could also be short-lived if the growing Latino population starts to vote more. Latinos are about 36% of the population in Riverside County and 39% in San Bernardino County.

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“This will revolve on Hispanics’ voting behavior,” he said.

Republican leaders in the Inland Empire have yet to launch any concerted effort to draw the growing Latino population into the GOP. Instead, the party has relied on Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City), the Legislature’s only Republican Latina, to reach out to Latinos.

Garcia, a native New Yorker whose parents came from Puerto Rico, said she had helped the party by expressing her political views on Spanish television and radio and visiting in heavily Latino communities.

“How can you be [a Republican] if you can’t see one?” she said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On the rise

Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined added 70,700 GOP voters from 2000 to 2004, compared with 65,951 new Republicans added in Orange County during that period.

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California counties with the largest increase in Republican voters from 2000 to 2004

*--* Increase since 2000 County Total Republicans in Number % change 2004 Orange 674,421 65,951 11% Riverside 322,247 47,132 17 Fresno 157,716 28,211 22 San Bernardino 282,657 23,565 9

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Source: Secretary of state - Reported by Times staff writer Hugo Martin

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