As hundreds of "tea partyers" filtered into a gymnasium in El Dorado Hills last week for rare back-to-back appearances by Republican Senate candidates Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore, Barbara Brown sat alone on the wooden bleachers studying a flier contrasting the candidates.
Brown, a member of the Motherlode Tea Party of Amador County, said she had been leaning toward DeVore, but was looking for someone "who can go for the jugular" against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She liked Fiorina's "fight" in interview snippets she'd seen.
"Chuck strikes me as a gentleman, well-spoken, love his values, [I] absolutely adore his conservatism," Brown said. "I just don't know — it's become so vicious now in politics, and in order to beat somebody like Boxer you've got to be able to play her game."
In a year when the imprimatur of the tea party swept Scott Brown to a Senate victory in Massachusetts and helped Rand Paul knock off the establishment Senate candidate in Kentucky — both DeVore and Fiorina are actively courting tea party support.
DeVore, an assemblyman from Irvine, has spoken to more than 60 tea party groups since April 2009 — creating what he calls a "huge reservoir" of volunteers. His screeds against federal spending and his emphasis on steering leaders back to constitutional principles have aligned seamlessly with many tea partyers' concerns.
The energy for his campaign is apparent, particularly at tea party meetings in Southern California. But with his numbers stuck at 16% in a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll, there is little evidence of the kind of groundswell that made the difference for Brown and Paul.
Fiorina, on the other hand, is rising in the polls and making it clear, with two tea party appearances last week, that she does not intend to cede those voters to a candidate whom she has derided as "dog-paddling" in the polls.
Her speeches and ads have emphasized her outsider credentials and her endorsement by tea party hero Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor. Even the slogan in her television ads – "Had enough?" – seems to zero in on the disaffected voters who have flocked to tea party meetings.
And that was just the pitch that the former Hewlett-Packard chief made in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento, telling more than 500 tea partyers that the government is "out of touch," "distant," "arrogant" and "elite."
Across the state, "I see people like you," Fiorina told them. "Whether they call themselves tea partyers, conservatives, libertarians, moderates, even independents or Democrats — I think we are members of a single party now. I think we are all a part of the 'had enough' party."
Although DeVore has long been cast as the tea party favorite, Fiorina is making the case that she must have corralled many of those voters to be ahead by double digits.
"You can't be 20 points up in the polls unless you've got a lot of tea party folks behind you," she said after an appearance Saturday at the Central Valley Tea Party meeting in Clovis.
DeVore, however, insists that the intensity of his support is not being properly measured in this three-way race and that the tea partyers could be "the huge 'X' factor" in the June 8 primary.
"I look at what happened in Kentucky, where Rand Paul ran eight points ahead of the poll average on the day that he won," he said. "And I think you're going to see some similar surprises here in California."
But his campaign acknowledges that it is difficult to gauge the political weight of these loosely organized groups, particularly when their attention is splintered among many different races.
The Sacramento-based Tea Party Express political action committee, for example, endorsed DeVore and donated $5,000 to his campaign. But many of the group's recent e-mails have solicited contributions for Sharron Angle, who is competing in the Republican primary for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid's seat in Nevada.
Tea Party Express Chairman Mark Williams said DeVore's race is important, but he acknowledged that the Reid race is the "No. 1 priority right now."
Dawn Wildman, California coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group, said she constantly hears about independent efforts for DeVore — including precinct walking, sign rallies and voter-to-voter calls — in her weekly conference calls with organizers of the 160 Patriots groups.
"One of the few races that I've seen absolute consensus on has actually been the Chuck DeVore race," she said. But she admits that it is more difficult to marshal grass-root forces in California than in a smaller state like Kentucky.
"Just from the distance perspective, it truly is like herding cats in California," she said.
Not all tea party organizers are seeing consensus for DeVore, particularly because many of the groups do not make endorsements and encourage dissension within their ranks.
The split was evident at the tea party meeting in Clovis, where many voters said they were torn between DeVore and Fiorina.
Nancy Mattrocce, a 56-year-old agricultural consultant, said she had been concerned that Fiorina was a Republican in name only. But after hearing her speak, she decided to switch her vote from DeVore to Fiorina "because I do believe that she will win."
"It's playing chess," she said, adding that she believed that as a woman Fiorina could sway more voters than DeVore. "She's got 60 to 70% of my values, and if I can get 60 to 70% that's better than zero."
Brown, the voter who was undecided at the El Dorado Hills event, said later that she and her friends discussed the same question of electability on their drive home from the event.
It was clear, she said, that Fiorina could "sparkle people up and get them all excited," but "the meat wasn't there."
"He's not very exciting, but I believe in everything he says," she said of DeVore. "I will be unhappy with myself if I don't go with the proven conservative. She has no track record."