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Do the math

Greg Lucas blogs on state politics at www.californiascapitol.com. He was a Statehouse reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years.

The lesson of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be finally taking hold in the Republican Party: If the GOP wants to win a statewide election, it has to nominate a moderate.

It’s simple math -- far simpler than anything an eighth-grader grapples with in Algebra I.

More than 3.1 million Californians -- about 20% of all registered voters -- choose not to be a member of a political party. And the number of decline-to-staters, as they’re called, is growing -- particularly among younger and first-time voters. About 40% of these independent voters say they’re moderates, with the other 60% split liberal and conservative, according to a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

So here’s the equation. At best, a traditional conservative GOP candidate for governor gets California’s registered Republican voters -- 32.53% of the electorate -- and perhaps the “conservative” one-third of the independents.

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A Democrat snags all the Democrats -- 43.75% of the electorate -- and potentially the liberal third of the decline-to-states.

That means the ballgame (at least after the primary) is the middle-ground independents. This mathematical equation isn’t lost on GOP statewide wannabes.

Tom Campbell is a Republican who could become California’s governor in 2010. A moderate former congressman from Silicon Valley, he recently formed a gubernatorial exploratory committee.

Campbell’s worldview is close to that of Schwarzenegger. Campbell, who served as Schwarzenegger’s top budget advisor in 2005, wants to be the man in the middle because he’s seen it work for his old boss.

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Steve Poizner, California’s insurance commissioner and the only Republican currently holding statewide office other than the governor, has done the math. The Silicon Valley Republican, a multimillionaire, hasn’t officially declared. But he’s working the hustings, giving here’s-why-you-should-dig-me speeches in which the only mention of insurance is his job title.

Poizner says he is a fiscal conservative who thinks government should stay out of people’s private lives. He’s pro-choice, as is Campbell.

Meg Whitman has done the math too. The former EBay executive is talked up as another GOP contender and appears cut from the same moderate cloth as Campbell and Poizner.

These gubernatorial hopefuls must win over the voters who have been key to Schwarzenegger’s political career. Independents elected him governor in the 2003 recall election. When he took a hard right turn in 2005 and placed four initiatives on a November special-election ballot, they slapped him upside his political head. Schwarzenegger smartened up.

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In 2006, the GOP governor again slavishly courted the middle. He championed such moderate-to-liberal positions as ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions. He signed a landmark law that sounds nearly identical to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s position on the issue.

Schwarzenegger also embraced a series of public works bonds that appealed to independents. One aimed to ease highway congestion, a big winner among independents because most are commuters. Another was a school construction bond -- and education is a priority for independents. But the big rallying cry was “investing in our future,” something that resonates with this group of voters.

Independents kissed and made up with Schwarzenegger, reelecting him governor and giving a thumbs-up to the bonds. And it’s telling that Schwarzenegger chose to tout a new age of “post-partisanship” as the centerpiece of his 2007 State of the State speech.

Recently, it seems, there are other Republicans who have done the math as well.

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In January, a group of well-heeled Schwarzenegger supporters critical of the state Republican Party’s conservative leadership bankrolled an organization called CRAFT -- California Republicans Aligned for Tomorrow. The organization’s aim is to find candidates who will “ensure GOP victories in 2010 and beyond.”

Translation: Run moderates who can snag enough independent voters in the general election to win.

The group’s chief executive is George “Duf” Sundheim, a moderate former head of the state Republican Party who hails from Palo Alto.

Of course, there’s one hitch to this whole idea. What happens to a GOP moderate if he or she is challenged by a conservative in the primary?

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Well, in that case, the math favors the conservative, because California’s registered Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative -- and the Grand Old Party doesn’t permit independents to vote in its primary.


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