Concerns over Whitman rein in GOP fervor

As California Republicans gather in San Diego on Friday, enthusiasm about their ticket’s competitiveness in this left-leaning state is being tempered by concerns about gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman.

The former EBay chief faces an awkward homecoming at the party’s convention because of her shifting tone on illegal immigration and climate change since winning the GOP primary in June.

“Conservatives and Republicans, we can eat a little bit of dirt on our food. It doesn’t have to be a perfect meal, but we have to know what we’re eating,” said Mike Spence, a leading conservative voice in the party. “Even if someone takes a position that’s different than the conservatives’, to be able to articulate it and stick with it you still get points…. Being all over the place doesn’t get you leadership points.”

The tension is likely to be on display this weekend: As moderate party leaders launch online efforts to reach out to minority voters, conservatives are trying to force a floor vote to support Arizona’s controversial crackdown on illegal immigration. Whitman, who some party activists say is trying to block such a vote, will leave before the fight occurs.

Whitman said concerns about a split are nonsense.

“We won the Republican primary by 38 points. It was a decisive victory,” she said. “Certainly, there are some people who disagree with me on some issues, but I don’t worry too much about the Republican Party splintering.”

The 1,000 or so attendees who are descending on the city’s Gaslamp Quarter have reason to be energized. Despite California’s blue tilt, Whitman and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina are in dead-heat races against Democrats Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, respectively. Their viability is invigorating the party faithful not only because of the possibility of election day wins, but because of the symbolism of victories over big-name Democrats whom Republicans view as emblematic of big-government liberalism.

“There will be lot of energy and momentum this weekend about the idea of not only winning the governor’s race, but actually having a Republican U.S. senator for the first time since 1992,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican strategist.

Voter sentiment, from outrage over government spending to pessimism about President Obama’s efforts to restart the economy, is aligning with the party’s core message, he said. “There’s genuine, grass-roots excitement that the issues are on our side, and it’s been a long time since Republicans in California have felt like they had the upper hand on the issues.”

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks state political races, agreed, citing GOP Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee’s victory this week in a state Senate district that Obama won by 20 points in 2008.

“The story of 2010 is not a Republican resurgence but a Democratic collapse,” he said. “This political climate has been handed to them by the Democrats. Republicans don’t have to do much but talk about jobs between now and November.”

But a faction at the convention will be talking about immigration, piqued by Whitman’s tonal shift since winning the Republican primary over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Back then, she said she would be “tough as nails,” and bolstered her credentials by trotting out campaign chairman and former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was the face of Proposition 187, the 1994 effort to deny taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants.

After winning the primary, Whitman published articles in Spanish-language newspapers that said she and Brown have similar views on illegal immigration and erected billboards in Latino communities stating her opposition to Proposition 187 and the Arizona law.

“I wish she would keep her promises that she made in the primary,” said Celeste H. Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction that endorsed Whitman’s and Fiorina’s rivals in the primary campaign.

Conservatives are also concerned that Whitman has said she would probably vote against Proposition 23, which would create a moratorium on the state’s landmark climate-change law.

Fiorina, in contrast, is being embraced by conservatives who viewed her suspiciously in the primary contest.

“Carly’s consistent,” Greig said.

The California Republican Assembly plans to introduce a resolution supporting the Arizona law. Whitman spokesman Darrel Ng declined to comment on whether her campaign was trying to block a vote on the issue.

“The campaign is working to make sure the party is focused on electing Republicans in November,” Ng said.

Analysts said that although the immigration split may cause drama at the convention, it won’t matter on election day when the only other option is Brown.

“They may be a bit miffed by her, but they’re certainly not going to vote the other way,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.