INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a warning to his fellow California Republicans on Friday: Their party is doomed if it does not move to the political center.
In a speech before 1,200 delegates to a semiannual state party convention, Schwarzenegger said the group's failure to reach out to independent and moderate voters -- and embrace politicians who, like him, govern from the middle -- is causing membership to plummet.
"In movie terms, . . . we are dying at the box office," he said. "We are not filling the seats."
The speech, which drew a mixed response, comes at a time of strained relations between the governor and the conservative activists who control the party. Schwarzenegger's policies on the environment, healthcare and state spending have led some party leaders to call him a Democrat masquerading as a Republican.
Yet in welcoming Schwarzenegger, party Chairman Ron Nehring described him as "the single greatest asset of the California Republican Party." Anticipating the speech to come, Nehring said the governor had been "bold" in taking the lead on healthcare and the environment -- traditionally Democratic issues.
Schwarzenegger, armed with poll numbers and invoking the names of "pragmatic conservatives" Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt, told a nearly full ballroom at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa that on the issues, most Republican voters agree with him -- not party activists.
"Our party has lost the middle, and we will not regain true political power in California until we get it back," he said. "I am of the Reagan view that we should not go off the cliff with flags flying."
"I did that in 2005; trust me," Schwarzenegger said in a reference to his failed special election, when voters rejected each one of the conservative ballot measures he championed.
Cautioning against an incipient "bunker mentality," he urged the party to follow the lead of Democrats and invite independents to vote in primaries. Otherwise, he said in a clear reference to the summer's prolonged budget standoff, the party will deteriorate to such an extent that "our only remaining power is to say no."
"This very savvy audience here today understands that saying no is not the basis for a healthy political party," he said. "If our party doesn't address the needs of the people -- the needs of Republicans themselves -- the voters, registered Republicans included, will look elsewhere for their political affiliation."
While some Republicans sat quietly during the speech, others interrupted Schwarzenegger more than a dozen times with applause. At the end of the 17-minute address, he received a sustained but not unanimous standing ovation -- highlighting the split within the party itself.
"He's got it right," said Lynn Daucher, a former Assembly member and current director of the California Department of Aging. "He spoke for many of us who have felt that way for years. For many of us who have watched other Republicans desert our party."
"The Republican Party should stick to its core principles," said Mark Zappa, 48, a promotional business owner from Gilroy who said he was "very disturbed" by the governor's call to open the Republican Party to independent voters as the Democrats do.
"If you have to sway your beliefs just to satisfy society, you don't have a moral basis," Zappa said. "Does that mean you're marginalized? Possibly."
Conservative Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who followed Schwarzenegger to the stage, received a more enthusiastic reception with a liberal-baiting speech.
"Since when did the field of science become the sole purview of left-wing politicians?" Perry said. He added, to loud applause and laughter, that he has heard Al Gore talk about global warming so often, "I'm starting to think his mouth may be the lead cause."
Most Republicans in the California Legislature are also at odds with Schwarzenegger's vision. Republicans in the state Senate refused for 51 days to pass a budget this year that was virtually a carbon copy of the one drafted by the administration.
The global warming bill the governor signed last year did not receive a single Republican vote. His healthcare plan this year appears to be destined for the same fate.
The governor confronted his Republican critics head-on.
He called the attacks on his work to curb global warming shortsighted, saying that polls show nearly three-quarters of registered Republicans support the legislation he signed last year.
"They want this party to do something more about climate change than simply doubt it," he said. "If it is the policy of the Republican Party to ignore the great majority of the world's scientists . . . then that is a party at odds with the future."
Schwarzenegger also said voters "want us to work for comprehensive healthcare, not stand in its way."
"We will be on the losing end of history unless we realize that healthcare must be addressed," he said.
Activists who control the party have long battled with more moderate GOP officeholders. They burned then-Gov. Pete Wilson in effigy after he raised taxes as part of a plan to erase a multibillion-dollar deficit.
The speech Schwarzenegger delivered Friday, in fact, echoed one that Reagan gave decades ago after party members charged that as governor, he was too willing to compromise the party's values.
The state party's fortunes have dwindled of late. Its coffers are empty. Members have questioned the competence of party leadership after some dubious hiring decisions. California's Republican congressional delegation has been embarrassed by ethics investigations. And the number of registered Republicans in California has dropped by 370,000 since 2005.
"The road to our comeback is clear," Schwarzenegger said. "The California Republican Party should be a right-of-the-center party that occupies the broad middle of California. That is a lush, green, abandoned political space that can be ours."
The governor closed with a personal anecdote about losing his first American bodybuilding competition, an event in Miami.
When he didn't win, he said, "I cried all night long. I vowed to myself I would work as hard as I could to be strong. . . .
"I pledge to you that I will work hard to make the Republican Party strong," Schwarzenegger said. " But for the sake of California and its people, I ask you to join me. I cannot do it alone."