O.C. shows it's not 'Romney country'

Times Staff Writer

When presidential campaigns kicked into high gear last year, Republican power brokers were calling Orange County "Romney country." But it seems John McCain didn't get the memo: The Arizona senator edged out Romney and carried the county in Tuesday's primary by about 7,500 votes, or 2.5%.

Orange County regards itself as California's Republican vanguard, and the party's elite aligned behind former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, saying that his successful business record and his politics made him the candidate most faithful to the Reagan orthodoxy that dominates county conservatism.

His backers included county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, a co-chair of Romney's California finance committee; former statewide party Chairman Mike Schroeder, who became a senior advisor to the Romney campaign; and state Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), the Republican leader in the state Senate.

They raised more than $2 million from Orange County for Romney, far more than the $800,000 raised by Orange County backers of McCain, according to estimates from local leaders involved in the respective campaigns. And both sides made thousands of calls from phone banks to get out the vote.

But in the end, it was McCain -- who has broken with the party on issues including immigration, campaign finance and tax cuts -- who won the day, although Romney's margin of loss was narrower in Orange County than in the state as a whole.

The failure of local GOP leaders to deliver for their man "means the party establishment doesn't necessarily represent the rank-and-file voter," said Mark P. Petracca, chairman of the political science department at UC Irvine.

"It's not the first time that the people on the ground weren't listening to the people who spend too much time at Newport Beach fundraisers and cocktail parties," Petracca said.

Ackerman, however, rejected the notion that the result signaled any disconnect between local party leadership and voters.

He said the reasons Romney lost in Orange County were largely the same as why he lost everywhere else in the state, with the main one being splitting the social conservative vote with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Adam D. Probolsky, a Republican pollster who is Romney's Orange County campaign chairman, noted that his candidate's performance in the county was better than statewide but declined to speculate on why he didn't prevail here. Overall, he said, the Romney campaign made a strategic decision not to spend money on airtime in California until less than a week before the election, and that may have been a factor.

"I wouldn't characterize that me and friends of mine supporting him would necessarily translate into votes," he said. "You had Orange County people supporting Romney because they believed in his commitment to our principles."

Schroeder did not return telephone calls seeking comment; an aide to Baugh said he was ill and not available for an interview.

On the other side, McCain's major backers included Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), and he received heavy fundraising support from real estate powerhouse the Irvine Co.

Tran has also put together a strong political machine in the Vietnamese community, which he threw into action for McCain with a 15-line phone bank and articles and advertisements in Vietnamese-language media.

"The McCain name is familiar with the Vietnamese community nationwide," he said. "Obviously, on the flip side, without the support of the party establishment, I don't think Gov. Romney even would have come that close. But you can't overcome the momentum."

Meanwhile, voters in Santa Ana approved two ballot measures extending term limits for City Council members and appointed commissioners, giving them three four-year terms instead of two.

The only ballot measure to go down to defeat in Orange County was in San Clemente, where voters rejected a measure to allow residential development on land used as a golf course.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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