The way things are going in the GOP presidential primary, there's now an outside chance that California's 169 delegate votes — the most of any state in the nation — could come into play.
It seemed, way back when, that Mitt Romney was a safe bet to make it to the dance with President Obama in November. Then Newt Gingrich came on like the bull terrier he is, followed by a surprising surge from Rick Santorum. If the seesaw ride continues, it could even make California's June 5 primary relevant for once.
So whom do California conservatives like?
My poll may have a wide margin of error, scientifically speaking, but I did zigzag my way through the heavily Republican Central Valley one day last week, asking that very question.
"Gingrich," said Joe Rebella, owner of Fresno's Whirlwind Car Wash, where the sign says "you'll see a whirl of difference."
Romney comes off as "wishy-washy," said the carwash man, who isn't exactly "conservative" with a capital C. He said he's voted for Democrats and Republicans, but business at the Whirlwind has been worse than ever since Obama took office. About a year ago, Rebella lost a big prize when Fresno City Hall stopped having him wash its fleet of cars because of budget troubles.
OK, but given the GOP gospel of ever-smaller government, does Rebella really think he'd get the city fleet back under a President Gingrich?
In the tiny farm town of Pixley, south of Tulare, I strolled into the True Romance Tattoo parlor, because how could I not?
"I'm a convicted felon," said the owner, Josh Richardson, explaining why he won't be voting in June or November. But if he could, he'd definitely vote Republican, on gun-rights issues alone.
His grandpa, James Crawford, said he had switched party affiliation from D to R that very morning because Obama is nothing but "promises, promises, promises." Crawford plans to vote for Romney in the primary because Gingrich is nothing but a politician and lobbyist.
OK, but with so many people suffering through a rough economy, does it bother Crawford that the fabulously rich Romney said he didn't care about poor people, or that he paid 13.9% in taxes on dividends while lots of working folks paid twice as much?
"No," said Crawford. "That's the way it's set up."
OK, but is that really the way it should be set up? And what about the fact that Romney trashed Obamacare despite having implemented virtually the same program while governor of Massachusetts?
"I didn't see that," Crawford said.
I guess when it comes to the dirty business of politics, the less you know, the better you feel.
A little farther south, Bakersfield Californian Government Editor Christine Bedell suggested several conservatives I might speak to, and Rosalyn Strode was the first to answer my call. She graciously invited me to her home and asked several friends to drop by and join the party. And for roughly 90 minutes, Strode and her husband, Ben, took me deep into the realm of social and fiscal Central Valley conservatism.
"A.B.O.," said Rosalyn, a longtime activist who works at a nuts-and-bolts dealership. "Anybody but Obama."
Obama is a socialist, said Ray Vercammen. He may be faking his so-called Christianity, said Sam Ackerman. And he wouldn't be much of a public speaker if not for TelePrompTers, said Loron Hodge. And naturally, "big media" are out to get Republicans, added Vercammen, even though I'd just listened to nine hours of syndicated Democrat-bashing on the car radio because that was about all I could pick up.
As we got to know one another better in the Strode living room, it seemed to me there was a strong feeling that food stamp abuse is rampant, illegal immigrants tend to have babies every nine months and Ronald Reagan is the once and forever king.
It may not be polite to invite yourself to a party and then toss a cow chip into the punch bowl, but I thought a bit of gentle interrogation was in order.
Was this government-shrinking crowd aware, I asked, that Reagan raised taxes as California governor and nearly tripled the national deficit as president?
I got blank stares, so it didn't seem worth adding that Reagan signed an abortion rights law in California and gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants as president.
"The Mexicans, they have abused this country and we have let it happen," said Ben Strode.
OK. And I thought I was the party-pooper.
"What's happening in this country," said Hodge, director of a ministry that provides food and clothing to those in need, is downright scary. With all this "abortion and homosexuality," he went on, the United States may be headed for a hell "worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11."
"God," Hodge said, "will not be mocked."
I suspected that such staunch social conservatives would have issues with Gingrich, the three-wife candidate hounded by questions of fidelity.
"None of us are clean," said Hodge, adding that Christians by their nature have to excuse transgressions.
You hear that, Bill Clinton? All is forgiven.
As for the burning desire to shrink government, I asked if anyone in the room was on Social Security or Medicare or had relatives at one of the nearby military bases.
Several hands went up.
Defense, Social Security and Medicare are the big-ticket items when it comes to federal spending. Shouldn't we start trimming there?
I got no support for that idea. Well, then, where would you swing the ax?
Congressional perks, said one. Make the state Legislature part-time, said another. And how about some pension reform?
Maybe so. And who should lead the way?
My new Bakersfield buddies were almost unanimous.
Romney? Nope. He only got 1 of the 8 votes in the room, from Vicki Himle.
Gingrich? Nope. He got shut out.
The favorite, with 7 out of 8 votes in Bakersfield's very own pre-primary balloting, was a guy who has the right "Bible-based" values, as Nancy Ackerman put it.
Are you out there, Rick Santorum?
Don't stop fighting, because they love you in Bakersfield.