Conspicuous absences at GOP event

Times Staff Writer

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Anticipating a report to Congress next week on progress in the war in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered a forceful defense Saturday of his stick-it-out approach at a state Republican convention still reverberating from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s warning that the party must move to the political center or risk irrelevancy.

With less than four months before absentee ballots go out for California’s Feb. 5 presidential primary, McCain was the only presidential contender to speak at this weekend’s semiannual convention at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa.

State GOP Chairman Ron Nehring dismissed the lack of presidential candidates as insignificant, but delegates said it contributed to a sense that the state party lacks energy and focus.

“I’d hate to think they’ve written us off, but actions speak louder than words,” said Justin Stoner, 36, a delegate from Visalia and a district representative for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia). “Maybe they feel like they have to build momentum in those traditional early primary states. Maybe they feel like there’s not much to gain in California.”


McCain’s luncheon speech covered familiar ground, but his words were more forcefully crafted than some of his earlier speeches because, he told reporters, the Senate will be debating the war after Gen. David H. Petraeus’ planned report to Congress this week on the effect of the “surge” strategy in Iraq.

McCain told reporters that he limited his speech to the war to stress how seriously he views the debate. “It’s going to be a seminal time because we will make a decision on whether to set a date for withdrawal or allow Gen. Petraeus’ strategy to have an opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Earlier, he warned fellow Republicans that a U.S. withdrawal would spark a broadened Middle East conflict and “hand a victory to the radicals in control of Iran.”

While acknowledging that “the war in Iraq has not gone well, and the American people have grown sick and tired of it,” McCain said U.S. forces must remain in Iraq until the country is stabilized.


“I, too, have been made sick at heart by the many mistakes made by civilian and military commanders and the terrible price we paid for them,” he said. “But we cannot react to these mistakes by embracing a course of action that will be an even greater mistake, a mistake of colossal historical proportions.”

McCain positioned the war on terror against the framework of the Cold War -- invoking what he described as President Reagan’s principled stand to not seek “reconciliation with our global adversary,” the Soviet Union. “Today, the challenges are at least as severe as they were when Ronald Reagan stood tall,” he said.

McCain, who seemed subdued and stumbled occasionally in his speech, later side-stepped reporters’ questions about Schwarzenegger’s political analysis Friday night that the Republicans need to embrace such issues as global warming and healthcare reform or lose independent and disaffected Republican votes to Democratic candidates.

But McCain acknowledged that his party has lost a connection with voters. “The corruption. The spending out of control. The lack of ability to handle Katrina. Our failures in Iraq,” he said. “We’ve lost the trust and confidence of the American people, and we’ve got to get it back.”


Nehring similarly deflected questions about Schwarzenegger’s warning, saying that “the party is going to be defined by its nominees, and our nominees are chosen by those people who vote in our primaries.”

Although not all of the delegates had arrived in time to hear Schwarzenegger’s speech Friday, it fueled informal discussions Saturday. Overheard discussions were both for and against Schwarzenegger’s argument, and pivoted on a crucial point: Should the party compromise on what many consider to be core positions in order to win elections?

“I agree with him,” said Corinne Fleming of La Jolla. “If we don’t get back to the center. . . . We’re very divided over the issues.”

One element of Schwarzenegger’s speech was a call to allow independent voters to cast ballots in the Republican primary, which they will not be allowed to do Feb. 5, though they can vote in the June primary for state and local elections. Democrats will allow independents to take part in their presidential primary, hoping that those voters will stick with their nominee in November 2008. Nehring said he had expected the issue to come up at the convention but “no one proposed the change.”


The absence of presidential candidates other than McCain also accented the failure of California’s moved-up primary to achieve a prime goal: giving the state’s voters a bigger say in determining the major party candidates.

Instead of wooing Republican activists here this weekend, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigned Friday in Florida and Saturday in Texas. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned Saturday in Iowa and New Hampshire, but planned a day off today in Massachusetts. Newly declared candidate Fred Thompson, a former actor and senator from Tennessee, was in Iowa and New Hampshire over the weekend. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) had planned to attend, but backed out at the last minute to remain in Washington ahead of the Iraq report to Congress.

In an interview, Nehring blamed the unsettled primary calendar for the decisions by candidates to focus on other states.

Rob Stutzman, a California Republican strategist working with the Romney campaign, said the flood of other states to hold early primary elections has trumped whatever hopes California might have had to be more relevant.


“There’s no question, as a Feb. 5 state, California remains midway down the list of priorities of where a candidate should spend time,” Stutzman said. “It’s just the way the calendar is built.”

The strategy for most of the candidates remains as it has for decades: do well early in Iowa and New Hampshire, and hope the momentum and media coverage pushes you through the next round of primaries and caucuses.

“It’s like a college football coach that’s trying to move up in the polls,” Stutzman said. “You stay focused on the game that’s immediately ahead of you, win it to create momentum and move on from there.”

But the momentum-building elsewhere left a sour taste in the mouths of some Republicans at the state convention.


Jim Hamilton of Brawley, who said he has been on the party’s central committee for 43 years, was surprised at the short shrift the convention received from the candidates. He and other delegates said it added to an emotional drag on the convention, a meeting of activists that had a distinctly muted feel -- with little of the energy that usually infuses gatherings of political partisans.

“The enthusiasm isn’t there,” Hamilton said. “With [Barry] Goldwater, everybody was excited, though he lost. With Reagan you saw a lot of excitement. The candidates now -- they don’t excite them.”