Almost three years ago, in the glow of a decisive re-election victory as California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed himself a "post- partisan" leader who would not be limited by the dogma of the two major parties. Ever since, conservative Republicans in the state have smoldered quietly, avoiding open revolt against their party's nominal leader but counting the days until one of their own could replace Schwarzenegger.
But as the field of candidates for the 2010 election begins to take shape, it is increasingly likely that the eventual Republican nominee will strongly resemble this governor in almost everything other than depth of accent and size of biceps.
On the issues, all three GOP candidates — former Rep. Tom Campbell, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman — represent about the same ideological turf as Schwarzenegger. They combine a fundamentally conservative approach to economic and public- safety issues with a more moderate grounding on social and cultural matters.
The absence of a social- conservative candidate is not caused by a lack of such active Republicans in the state. But the money is with the centrists — and figures to remain so.
All three Republican contenders are emphasizing their economic agendas to the primary audience, positioning themselves well to the right of the way Schwarzenegger has governed (but not that far from the way he campaigned). As the primary draws closer, look for their criticisms of his record on taxes and spending to become much less polite.
Schwarzenegger's brand of environmental advocacy appears to be an early casualty in the GOP race as well. The candidates argue his strong stance on emissions control could be costly to the economy in a time of deep recession. They also will run hard on issues relating to crime (longer sentences and more prison construction) and illegal immigration (border control).
All three candidates favor abortion rights and stem-cell research, however, and the absence of a pro-life challenger might make it easier for them to soft-pedal these important social issues — which may keep the party's internal divisions on them from taking center stage.
On another social issue, same- sex marriage, the candidates have a mixed response (Whitman and Poizner supported the 2008 state proposition that defined marriage as between a man and a woman; Campbell opposed it). However, unlike abortion and stem-cell research, where California voters lean heavily toward the pro-choice position, public opinion on same- sex marriage is more closely divided. However they fall on the issue, it's less likely to help or hinder them in the general election.
But the other key factor here is the financial reality of running for governor in the 21st century. Both Whitman and Poizner have sufficient personal wealth to allow them to spend tens of millions of dollars on the race. The party's largest donors tend to be much more centrist than its grass roots, and they would pay little attention to a contender representing the GOP's right flank. So the most prominent conservative elected officials are unlikely to enter a field in which they almost certainly would be dramatically outspent.
At this early stage of the race, state Attorney General Jerry Brown — who isn't yet a formal candidate — has high approval ratings and name recognition, and with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to leave the race, the possibility of an uncontested path to the Democratic nomination. While the Republicans throw javelins at each other over the next several months, he could marshal resources and position himself toward the center.
Combined with Schwarzenegger's low poll numbers, these are ingredients that make the Democrat an early front-runner. But the Republican centrists may be able to lessen those advantages.
For almost a quarter of a century, the ideological mix that Campbell, Poizner and Whitman represent has been a virtual prerequisite for top-of-the-ticket Republican success. Since 1986, the only Republicans to win campaigns for governor or U.S. senator have been Schwarzenegger and fellow abortion-rights advocate Pete Wilson. Poizner's and Whitman's money might not guarantee either of them success, but it may force the formulation of a field of GOP centrist candidates.
Although history suggests that may be better for the party's chances in November, the challenge of persuading a conservative Republican base to turn out for a centrist nominee remains.
In the end, that may be the defining question in the election of California's next governor.
Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, was communications director for Gov. Wilson.
LOS ANGELES TIMES