Central Valley

Crunch time for Valley undecideds

A year ago, Rudy Giuliani came to Fresno and was immediately anointed by the local Republican establishment as the party's front-runner.

Outside Mimi's Cafe in the River Park shopping center, nearly 100 party stalwarts cheered his arrival and announced they were endorsing him as the Republican presidential nominee.

So when Giuliani abandoned his quest for the presidential nomination and endorsed former rival John McCain, his Fresno supporters were left in disarray.

"It's a real conundrum for me," said Clovis resident Fran Blackney, who is business advocate for the city's chamber of commerce. "Should I automatically go to McCain because Rudy supports him? There is just no candidate that tugs my heart this year as George Bush did."

And that is the challenge for local Republican activists who supported Giuliani. His decision has exposed local Republican divisions, with moderates going to Arizona Sen. McCain, conservatives gravitating to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- and some going nowhere.

"I already voted two weeks ago for Rudy Giuliani," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I'm not going to tell someone to vote for someone when I didn't even do it."

But many are weighing in -- whether they already have cast absentee ballots or not -- and because conservatives predominate among many elected officials and activists in the central San Joaquin Valley, Romney appears to be getting the larger benefit of Giuliani's departure.

Among local Democrats, the angst level is much lower, even though one of their own major candidates -- John Edwards -- also withdrew last week. Most already have announced their support for either New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, did line up some local support, but not as extensively as Clinton or Obama have.

One Edwards supporter was local attorney and longtime Democratic Party stalwart Richard Watters. He's now supporting Obama.

"I think he has a fresh approach to Washington, D.C., and to take on the monumental issues our country has," Watters said.

Almost as important, he added: "I think he wins for my party every time, and I don't think Hillary Clinton wins every time against a Republican opponent."

Obama also has won support from both Assembly Member Nicole Parra of Hanford and state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter. Although both are Democrats, the two are fierce political rivals and rarely agree on anything.

But Clinton has wooed a long list of local elected officials, including Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, and Fresno City Council members Cynthia Sterling, Henry T. Perea and Blong Xiong.

Much drama heading toward Tuesday's primary vote, however, has been on the Republican side.

On Friday, local Republican strategist Michael Der Manouel Jr. -- another one-time Giuliani supporter -- penned a column for the conservative Web site FlashReport on why he is now supporting Romney.

"McCain may well be the GOP nominee in the fall," Der Manouel wrote, "but not with my vote."

McCain does have a core of support in the region. Businessman and former Secretary of State Bill Jones is a longtime supporter and is serving as his state chairman. Fresno Mayor Alan Autry also was an early supporter.

New to the McCain cause is Fresno businesswoman Anne Speake. Another former Giuliani supporter, she now is backing McCain.

"I couldn't see myself voting for anybody else," she said.

"I like McCain. I think he will do a good job. I just liked Rudy better."

Still, McCain has been vilified by many party conservatives across the nation, as well as in Fresno.

Local attorney and former Fresno City Manager Jeff Reid said Romney "qualifies as a conservative." Asked if McCain might adopt conservative stances, he said: "There's no hope of that."

Romney also has the backing of Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen, who until recently was undecided, along with Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan, who endorsed Romney last year.

No matter which Republican wins the nomination, they will likely get the support of most local GOP activists, businessmen and elected officials -- especially if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

Said Blackney, the Clovis Republican: "I'll vote for ABC -- Anybody But Clinton."