California remains little more than an afterthought in the back-and-forth Republican presidential nominating contest, but the primaries and caucuses over the next couple of weeks will go a long way to determining whether the nation's most populous state will matter in a way it has not in decades.
Many GOP loyalists attending this weekend's state party convention were hoping it does, should no clear winner emerge before the state's June 5 primary.
Cathy Statler, a hairdresser from Long Beach, said she was encouraged that California might have some sway in picking the GOP nominee. Given this year's late primary, she was hoping for a crush of visits over the coming months by the Republican candidates, generating the kind of publicity that could help the state party rebuild its ranks.
"For the first time since Ronald Reagan was elected, California is in play this year,'' Statler said, as she handed out campaign materials for a friend running for a Long Beach-area state Assembly seat. ``It's been frustrating in the past, but now it's really exciting because now we're rebuilding.''
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who gave the luncheon address Saturday, has vowed to stay in the race and said he expects California will be in play this year.
"There will not be any lockdown before we get to California,'' he told hundreds of convention attendees.
Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are moving into a crucial stretch of state primaries and caucuses. If no definitive front-runner emerges after Super Tuesday in March, California's 172 delegates will begin to loom larger on the national stage.
Gingrich, who has come to the state several times to raise money, said having a meaningful Republican primary in California can only help the party, even though the state has tilted heavily Democratic in recent years and overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama in 2008.
"You cannot follow the recent Republican practice of writing off our largest state,'' Gingrich said in a luncheon speech before the crowd gathered at an airport hotel near San Francisco, where he sought to build support for his nomination. ``It is impossible for the Republican Party to be the governing party without having a very, very strong role in California.''
A Field Poll last week showed Romney with the greatest support among Republican voters in California, but a change this year in how the state's delegates are awarded will allow other candidates to add to their national total even if they don't win the overall vote. This year's system in the state is winner-take-all based on congressional district.
California's 172 delegates are about 15 percent of the 1,144 delegates needed for the Republican nomination. Because of the proportional voting in this year's GOP primaries and caucuses, many of the candidates have said they will continue their campaigns so they can amass delegates until the national party convention in August.
"Normally we're the ATM of the political world and money tends to flow out of California to invest in the presidential cycle. But this time around ... you're going to see an enormous amount of money being spent in California,'' state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said. ``It's been a long time since the California primary mattered this much, and I think it will probably bring unprecedented fundraising, unprecedented appearances and should be really exciting.''
Still, others worried this year's protracted primary fight between the candidates would deplete campaign coffers and could turn voters off to the eventual GOP nominee if the campaigns are too negative.
"This has really been a meat-grinder. We think it was probably a mistake to have so many debates,'' said Alyse Kolb, a retired dental hygienist from Placerville. ``It's hardened the candidates, it's shaken them down, but it's too bad so much money got spent upfront.''
Despite the excitement over a potential presidential primary that matters, the path ahead for the California Republican Party remains difficult.
Voter registration has dropped to just 30.4, down from 33.5 percent in 2008, the last presidential election year. Democratic registration has increased slightly since then, to 43.6 percent, while the number of independent voters has grown to more than 21 percent.
Democrats hold every statewide office, majorities in both houses of the Legislature and expect to widen their majority in California's congressional delegation this November.
Another Field Poll released last week showed Obama leading each Republican presidential candidate by at least 20 percentage points in theoretical matchups.
Party delegates voted Sunday to adopt a conservative party platform that codifies Republican opposition to gay marriage, illegal immigration and public health care. It also expresses support for two-parent families and says that life begins at conception. The vote comes as the party is attempting to expand its appeal to minority and young voters who have shunned the GOP in California.