FRESNO -- The Republican Party, which overtook Valley Democrats in voter registration totals eight years ago, is losing ground for the first time in at least a decade.
After peaking just ahead of the 2004 presidential election, Republican registration numbers are down in Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera, Mariposa and Merced counties.
The GOP's decline is most obvious in Fresno County, where the losses have turned into an avalanche, even as the party gears up its efforts to keep the White House in GOP hands by electing Arizona Sen. John McCain as president.
The most recent voter registration numbers show the Democrats are closing the gap and are now fewer than 9,000 voters behind the Republicans.
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At the peak in 2004, GOP registrations were ahead by more than 23,500 voters.
"We are concerned," said Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party. "We're looking back, and we see they're gaining on us." But the party seems unable to put its finger on how it lost almost 13,000 Fresno County voters in less than four years.
They acknowledge that some voters -- likely moderates younger than 35 -- have migrated to the Democratic Party or have become independents, known in California as "decline-to-state" voters.
They think some fiscal conservatives also have left the party in disgust as the national debt soared under President Bush and, for most of his two terms, a Republican Congress.
At the same time, the cash-strapped state party organization has been unable to mount an aggressive registration drive to woo new voters.
Laura Gadke, who is chairwoman of the Tulare County Republican Party and also serves as a regional vice chair for the state Republican Party, said the party is paying people to register voters, but only in competitive districts.
One of those is the 30th Assembly District, where Democrat Fran Florez and Republican Danny Gilmore are vying to replace Democrat Nicole Parra, who has reached her term limit.
Several also say Fresno County must have done a major purge of its voter rolls, taking out those Republicans who either moved or died. Fresno County Clerk Victor Salazar said purging occurs continually, and that no special effort has been made recently.
The challenge of turning it around may be formidable, as the Republican Party appears to be struggling not just locally but also across California and the nation.
"This is happening all over the country, wherever we can measure it, in blue, red and purple states," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, referring to the colors designated for Democrat, Republican and swing states.
Even worse for Republicans: Sabato -- who recently published a study on the issue -- called the voter registration shift "a generational change, and it will not be reversed." He said young voters are overwhelmingly registering as Democrats because Republicans have become too identified with divisive social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
The Republican Party, Sabato said, also has lost its image of fiscal conservatism and is being dragged down by both the Iraq war and Bush's unpopularity.
"Naturally," he said, "there are consequences." State Democrats are giddy at the turn of fortunes, as they hope not only to win back the White House this November, but also to capture more seats in Congress and in the state Legislature.
The party's numbers are up, and the gap is narrowing not only in Fresno County but in other solidly Republican counties as well.
In Riverside County, Republicans have lost close to 34,000 voters since October 2004; in Orange County, an 18 percentage point Republican Party lead in 2004 is now at 14 percentage points.
Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party, points out that Democrats picked up almost 75 percent of the more than 411,000 new voter registrations statewide between voter-registration reports filed Jan. 22 and May 19.
During that same time, close to 21 percent of new registrations were decline-to-state. Republicans picked up just 3.6 percent of the new voters.